by Julien Allen
The Unknown Girl
Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium, IFC Films/Sundance Selects
The struggle to understand one's own emotional responses to the world around us is a terrific subject for a film, but it isn't exactly ideal for film criticism. Life would be simpler if only we could pinpoint exactly how we feel (or in default of this, how we're supposed to feel) about a film, especially when we task ourselves with conveying at least an element of this sentiment to the reader. Even moments of intellectual clarity, which are hard to come by at the best of times, don't neatly translate into emotional certainty. There's so much other stuff that gets in the way.
Take Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's latest, The Unknown Girl: largely and pointedly ignored at Cannes this year; spoken about in brief, dismissive conversations tinged with regret; lukewarmly reviewed, with gentle undertones of nascent backlash; a film that seemed to divide audiences between those who wish it could just be a little bit more visceral (like, say, The Son)and those who are prepared to admit they are starting to get just a tiny bit sick and tired of the same-old, same-old adventures in Seraing. Maybe it's a "dip"; maybe the Dardennes have temporarily lost their "mojo"; maybe they just need a "spark" to set them on their way again? Maybe. There's a slight sense of decay surrounding this movie, like when a beloved relative's faculties start to wane and their temper starts to shorten, so that trips to visit them begin to feel like more of a duty than a pleasure. A nagging feeling nevertheless lingers: if we aren't responding like we used to, might there instead be something wrong with us? Are some of us guilty of confusing the coherence of a body of work with its duplication?
The film has “issues”: of that there is absolutely no doubt. There is an irresolvable battle at the heart of the main character's construction and the climax reposes on a level of contrivance that is more transparent than in the Dardennes' other films (many of which have been accused of being overdesigned by those who find it hard to come to terms with the filmmakers’ hyper-controlled storytelling technique). It is not always clear whether such potential flaws are intended to be taken instead at face value, so great is the Dardennes' reputation for leaving no stone unturned in the creation of their stories. One might also note a greater use of static camerawork and classical cutting, as opposed to their accustomed handheld, roving, or over-the-shoulder approach: this removes some of the Dardennes "feel" rather than surprising us by its innovation.
Continuing their recent predilection for casting bankable French actresses in leading roles (Cécile de France in The Kid with a Bike; Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night) the Dardennes have called upon France's current hottest acting property, Adèle Haenel, consecutive César-winner, for Bonello's House of Pleasures in 2014 and—denying the hot favorite, Clouds of Sils Maria's Juliette Binoche—Love at First Fight in 2015. Her facility with the Dardennes’ style seems much more innate than that of her predecessors. Like her American counterpart, Kristen Stewart, Haenel is not the kind of star who bursts off the screen, but rather one who draws the viewer into it. With zero self-consciousness, she employs deliberate glances, widening of the eyes and other gestures of internalized intensity to convey a hugely unconventional cinematic psychosis, one that takes the viewer by surprise as much by its emergence from within a strong, sympathetic character as by its slow creep. Haenel plays a young general practitioner whose final few moments in public health service before transferring to the private sector are abruptly spattered with drama: she saves a young boy's life in the waiting room, she is forced to upbraid an intern for insubordination and, while doing the latter, makes a crucial decision to refuse to open the door of the clinic to a late caller whose face she does not see on the intercom video ("You can't let latecomers put us in a position to make bad diagnoses," she explains to her intern).
Upon learning from the police the following day that the body of the anonymous young female caller in question was discovered by the river in the early hours, Haenel sets out on a course of investigative action, ostensibly to discover the girl's identity so that she can be given a proper headstone for her grave. Her real motive is clear: the feeling of responsibility for this girl's death, which she cannot shake, has created an unbreakable fiduciary bond between them, one so strong that she is prepared to put her own life in danger to get to the bottom of the victim's case. In so doing, Haenel becomes involved with the Seraing police, with neighbors and townspeople (some of whom are her patients) and with the criminal underworld from which the unknown girl (later revealed to be a Guinean immigrant who had been working as a prostitute) has come. At the same time, this doctor turned sleuth u-turns on her lucrative new job in private practice, vowing to continue helping those most in need.
Playing loosely with genre is becoming a big part of the Dardennes' modus operandi. After the ticking-clock suspenser that was Two Days, One Night, the Dardennes have now taken on the detective procedural, on this occasion using the conceit that Haenel's character deploys her medical expertise to uncover clues and flush out dishonest respondents (at one stage she casually asks apparently unintrusive questions of a patient while taking his pulse). Whether or not the Dardennes are fans of Quincy M.E. or House M.D., the fact remains that this is merely a storytelling formula, a means to an end that relies on respect for the protagonist's skill and instinct, clearly not an exercise in genre for its own sake. That end is (as usual) the continued exploration and exposure of the corrosive impact of social deprivation and the breakdown of communitarian values.
As the usual suspects file into shot (the film draws comfortingly on canonical Dardenne players Olivier Gourmet, Jérémie Rénier, and Fabrizio Rongione), a bigger picture emerges of the injurious community in which the victim lived. An image of this unknown woman is constructed in the viewer's mind through the testimony of others, but it is blurred, both by the unreliability of the witnesses and their deliberate refusal to engage directly with who she really was as a person. They are too concerned with establishing their alibis. It soon becomes apparent that almost everyone Haenel speaks to shares at least some level of culpability in the circumstances that led to the victim's death. In this sense, the project vividly recalls J. B. Priestley's socialist drama An Inspector Calls—a play whose radical power, despite its traditional Victorian-era staging and dialogue, survived the social realist "angry young man" revolution of the 1960s to become an untouchable, much-performed classic of 20th-century English theater. In it, a police inspector (who may or may not be real) confronts a family about the death of an unknown girl. One by one, the family members begin to realize that they all knew this girl and that their aggregated behavior toward her had driven her to hardship and eventually, suicide. In An Inspector Calls, the girl (who may be many girls) becomes a symbol of the disenfranchised.
One (bogus) post-Cannes criticism of the film (in the French magazine Critikat) was that the intricacy of this setup makes the story far too specific—and improbable—to carry the burden of universality fundamental to the Dardennes' cause. This is too restrictive a reading: specifically located existential stories (from A Man Escaped to Kes) have always proven powerful vehicles for socially motivated cinema. Look at 12 Angry Men: has there ever been a more contrived set of narrative circumstances than the facts of that court case and the order of those facts as presented to us in the jury room? Yet its social message burns through like a soldering iron through butter. Without betraying the intrigue of The Unknown Girl, the act of cowardice that hastens the victim's demise is an utterly universal, male act, exacerbated by the multiple acts of male selfishness that went before it.
At the heart of the Dardennes' social realism—as distinct from Ken Loach, who leans on improvised dialogue and nonprofessional actors, or Maurice Pialat, who was interested only in forcibly extracting moments of ontological reality—is a willful, post-Bazinian artifice that consists of meticulously creating a set of highly contrived circumstances (realistic in themselves on an item-by-item basis, but clearly assembled, linked, and presented in an artificial, fictional manner) to enable a violently realistic set of human reactions to play out within them. Their contrivance is based on philosophical truths about human behavior, combined with faith in their audiences to distill truth from fiction. Their cinema presents an almost constant dialogue between the mundane and the colossal.
If the formula wavers at all here, it could be in the makeup of the central character, whose improbable qualities cannot all be explained away by her psychological state. She has an awkward saintliness in her collateral devotion to the public good while obsessively pursuing the culprit. Add to this her uncommon bravery, combined with a Sherlock Holmes–like omnipotence in her investigative success rate and accusations of “Mary Sue” might be upheld on this occasion. Because she binds the story together, and the film's short running time and thematic focus can ill afford too many blind alleys, her own plausibility as a character could be compromised. Contrast her with Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, who combines febrility with strength in much more defendable proportions. On the flipside, Haenel's performance makes her development during the course of the film captivating. As her obsession evolves, her sense of proportion deteriorates (she becomes possessed, almost “mad,” in the words of Luc Dardenne) until bit-by-bit, as a resolution nears, a level of clarity returns and finally there is a degree of peace (though it is left ambiguous as to how much she has really recovered). She is so completely in command of the necessary pieces of the puzzle that it feels as though we’re privy to the sight of a doctor curing herself. Haenel's character is both active, in that she drives the action forward; and necessarily passive, in that her approach as the questioner is one of listening intently (she starts the film using a stethoscope) and thus bearing witness on our behalf to the unhappy trail of life that unfolds in front of her.
If the Dardennes prioritize women and children in their cinema, it is because society itself continues to mark them out for unequal treatment, so that the greater burden of humanity's struggle lies with them. In The Unknown Woman, the brothers, mindful of the immediacy of the migrant crisis in Europe, add race to this equation: their camera tracks one (white) woman's struggle to assuage her own guilt, but another struggle is more resonant, that of the unknown (black) woman, whose face on the intercom was ignored. She has no identity. She has been passed from person to person. She is excluded from the frame, but her ghastly predicament grows ever more vivid in our mind's eye. To some, this concept of the absent black woman existing through the efforts of a white counterpart is undoubtedly problematic; to others, it is heartbreaking evidence that what the camera doesn't show can sometimes be more overwhelming than what it does.
It is the organic strength of these sentiments, coupled with the unwavering resolve of the filmmakers—mirroring their own protagonist in their refusal to disengage from doing what they know how to do best—which closes the debate in the film's favor. Even a maculate film by the Dardennes can be recalibrated as a valuable work of art, in preference to being discarded as a slightly discolored facsimile of their key work. Just as Haenel's character somehow believes that the culprit will confess all to her (and is proved right), a film with this amount of rigor, precision, and compassion surely deserves to succeed.