THE UNKNOWN GIRL
Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
Cast: Adèle Haenel, Olivier Bonnaud, Jérémie Renier, Louka Minnella, Christelle Cornil, Nadège Ouedraogo, Olivier Gourmet, Pierre Sumkay, Yves Larec, Ben Hamidou, Laurent Caron
Running Time: 1:46
Release Date: 8/25/17 (limited); 9/22/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 21, 2017
The mystery of The Unknown Girl is, obviously, the identity of a teenage girl, who died under suspicious circumstances without any form of ID on her. The movie follows a doctor who could have helped the girl before she died but didn't. The denial of aid was through no fault of her own, except that, in the decisive moment, the doctor was momentarily overcome by a character flaw. She had to be right, to prove to a rebellious intern that she was the one in charge, and as a result, the girl couldn't get into the clinic—a sanctuary from someone who was chasing her.
This is the sort of simple moral quandary that writers/directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne excel. The point is not whether the doctor was right or not from a legal or moral standpoint. The drama is how she handles the feeling of guilt. Here, she becomes an amateur detective, following a series of leads that might reveal the dead girl's name. In her mind, that is the least the doctor could do.
This is, to a degree, fascinating from a perspective of moral conflict and consequences. Dr. Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) may not be legally culpable for the girl's death, and she might not even be morally guilty of anything, considering how quickly the girl's stop at the clinic door happened. Jenny is convinced she could have done one thing—press the button that would unlock the front door when she heard the girl buzzing. That one thing might have saved the girl's life.
At the time, though, Jenny is in a battle of wills with Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), an intern at the clinic who freezes when a boy has seizures in the waiting room. Because she's angry or disappointed with the young guy's unhelpfulness, she stops him from unlocking the door when it buzzes. She later admits to him that she wanted a victory over him, as minor as it may be, to prove that what she says goes in the clinic. It's a lesson for any aspiring doctor. The intern ends up quitting his medical studies anyway.
The point is that every decision has a consequence—and even more than one. The girl is dead. A promising medical student won't pursue the field any longer. Jenny feels guilty about these things and more that she doesn't know. A family has lost a daughter, and they don't even know it. Depending on what happened that night, a killer could be wandering the streets freely.
Those last two consequences give the movie a bit of a push, although the thing about the family is that the movie doesn't deal with the thought until its final minutes, while the thing about the potential murderer on the loose seems like a contrivance. There's a way the Dardenne brothers have with pacing. It's methodical and constantly inspecting the characters in quiet moments. The idea of a murderer on the loose, especially as Jenny begins looking into shady characters and even shadier situations, doesn't quite gel with the filmmakers' aims.
In fact, the entire concept of a potential murder mystery seems a bit below them—or, perhaps, out of their reach. Something is decidedly off about the movie: It wants to deal with the moral conundrum and its effects on these characters, but such introspection seems fairly useless within this context. There's an urgency to this scenario, but no one seems to recognize it.
Ignoring that, the movie does delve as deeply as it can into Jenny's dilemma. She relentless in her pursuit of the girl's identity, even while trying to juggle her patients and taking over the clinic from her mentor. Luckily, since this is a small and tight-knit community, her professional and amateur interests often overlap. Bryan (Louka Minnella), the son of one of her patients, is suffering from intense indigestion, and as with all of her patients, Jenny shows the boy the girl's photo, which was captured on the clinic's security camera. He doesn't show any reaction, but since she takes the boy's pulse, she knows that it has increased after seeing the picture.
Some of the details, such as this one, are clever, and if this were a traditional mystery, such details might have given a straightforward story some character. It's not a traditional mystery, though, and it shows that the Dardennes are torn between two, distinct modes of telling this story. On the one hand, there's what happened to the girl, which leads Jenny to a grimy back story involving the local sex trade, a couple of goons who stop her car to threaten her, a chase, and a series of confrontations with people who know much more than their willing to say (until everything has to be revealed, at which point they talk with uncharacteristic and convenient honesty). On the other, there's the Dardennes' juxtaposition of Jenny's guilt with the assortment of good things she does on a daily basis for her patients.
That seems to be the underlying question: Does a life spent helping people eliminate one wrong decision, or can such a single choice destroy the overwhelmingly decent actions a person does? That would be a worthy moral question to explore, but The Unknown Girl is too indecisive about its goals to be either an involving mystery or a study of morality.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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