When we first meet Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel), the smart, uncompromising young doctor who occupies every frame of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “The Unknown Girl,” she is seeing a patient at the end of a long day at her clinic. A routine examination is interrupted by a sudden emergency in the waiting room, and even after the crisis is averted and the last of the patients have gone home, Jenny and her intern, Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), are tired, frustrated and on each other’s last nerves.
When the door buzzes, she orders him not to answer it — a directive that feels less like a matter of after-hours procedure than an assertion of her authority. You may not think much of this curt exchange in the moment. But one of the lessons of the Dardenne brothers’ stirringly humane working-class dramas is that even the smallest lapses in judgment can have unpredictable, often shattering consequences.
Sure enough, a police detective comes around the next morning with news that an unidentified young black woman has been found dead on a nearby riverbank, under circumstances that suggest foul play. Surveillance footage confirms that she approached the door of the clinic the night before, frantically pressed the buzzer and, when no one answered, ran off toward her untimely death.
“If I’d opened the door, she’d still be alive,” Jenny says, and while no one blames her for ignoring a late visitor or failing to grasp the danger afoot, the doctor feels a deep sense of personal responsibility. While the police go about their investigation, Jenny becomes determined to learn the dead girl’s name, so that her family will at least know what happened to her. She starts showing the girl’s photo to each of her patients and asking if they recognize her — a rudimentary game of detective that nonetheless exposes the deep layers of everyday apathy and injustice in and around Seraing, the Belgian factory town she calls home.
By this point, the Dardennes’ devotees could probably construct a map of Seraing based on a close study of their movies, which have turned this small world of nondescript apartments and construction zones into one of the most vivid and recognizable landscapes in international cinema. Even if you’ve never seen a film by the Dardennes — I’d start with their 2003 masterpiece, “The Son,” or one of their two Palme d’Or-winning dramas, “Rosetta” (1999) and “L’Enfant” (2005) — chances are you’ve seen a picture, like Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” or Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” whose handheld camerawork bears the influence of the brothers’ unflinching observational style.
But what sets the Dardennes apart isn’t the extremity of their visual and formal techniques. It’s the uncompromising moral vision and piercing emotional honesty at the heart of their work, their understanding that the most gripping stories are borne not of narrative contrivance but of human desperation.
“The Unknown Girl” is an imperfect but absorbing addition to the canon, a carefully plotted thriller of conscience in which Jenny spends most of the movie patiently and persistently atoning for her mistake. The camera follows her as she keeps up her inquiries about the dead girl, seeing patients in her clinic, making the rounds at their homes and at one point visiting a seedy cyber café in one of Seraing’s African immigrant communities, where the victim may have once been a regular.
Most of the individuals Jenny questions brush her off. But a few of them find that they want to talk, in spite of themselves, and in these privileged moments the directors’ unflinching focus pays off. Nearly every encounter is shot in a single uninterrupted take, as if a single cut would undermine the authenticity of the interaction. Jenny becomes more than a detective or an interrogator in these moments; through the rules of doctor-patient confidentiality, she offers them the liberating seal of the confessional.
The Dardennes are known for eliciting superb performances from their actors, including their regular muses Olivier Gourmet and Jérémie Renier, who turn up in crucial supporting roles here. But Haenel, who was 26 when the film was shot, is front and center: This is some of the subtlest, most empathetic acting you’ll see in a movie all year. Jenny’s calm, by-the-book manner with her patients might seem a bit too chilly and reserved at first, but that knowing professionalism is precisely what they find so comforting. Her competence inspires respect, loyalty and trust in ways that simple warmth could not.
“The Unknown Girl” first screened in competition at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, where it drew uncharacteristically mixed reviews; the Dardennes, citing the disappointing reaction, opted to trim the film by seven minutes before theatrical release. Truth be told, I didn’t notice much of a difference when I viewed the new cut last month, and in any event, a slight shift in running time probably wouldn’t solve the movie’s problems — or, for that matter, obliterate its very real virtues.
In making their first true genre piece, the directors have ironically neutralized the element of surprise. Forcing their usual ethical query into the structure of a whodunit, the Dardennes have emerged with a narrative that, as compelling as it is, can also feel prosaic and even a bit predictable, especially in the overly aggressive melodrama of the closing scenes.
Some might further question the effectiveness of a movie that frames a harrowing story of black immigrant suffering from a perspective of white guilt, though I would counter that Jenny’s sense of moral impotence, and her desire to be rid of it, is crucial to the point the Dardennes are making. There is something deeply moving about how seriously they regard their heroine’s profession, and the way they link it to a higher social calling.
A good doctor must listen carefully, ask the right questions and diagnose the human condition itself. True healing, the film reminds us, is a matter of not only the flesh but also the spirit.
‘The Unknown Girl’
(In French with English subtitles)
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, Los Angeles