Cannes 2016 – The Unknown Girl (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)

The nature of truth, discretion, and moral obligation are already hazy concepts to grapple with, and when they all intersect, it becomes even more difficult to reconcile their possibly discrete interests. Mindful of this philosophical consideration, the Dardenne brothers return to the Croisette with The Unknown Girl, their tenth feature film and seventh Palme bid, in a parable that weighs and scrutinizes the significance of responsibility.

French leading lady Adèle Haenel stars as Jenny, a young doctor, who becomes a participant in the aftermath of an unidentified African girl’s mysterious death. One evening, before Jenny’s practice closes for the day, this young girl buzzes Jenny’s office, and is later revealed to be desperately seeking refuge. The next day, police inform Jenny that the young woman’s corpse has been discovered: it is not immediately clear if this is accidental or a case of homicide. Feeling guilty for not having made a snap decision that could have saved this girl’s life, and even just genuinely intrigued by the mystery, Jenny begins to question if she has been an unsuspecting accomplice in this misfortune. As she embarks on an ongoing inquiry to discover what has happened, Jenny learns that the people around her, who may also bear a feeling of blame, struggle to understand the moral complexities that enshroud their possible involvement.

The Unknown Girl errs in its tendency to be more fascinated by its own clever procedural unspooling than with time spent in reflection on the themes it proposes. Long scenes, that appear to be written in order to drive home a single point, inflate The Unknown Girl‘s running time (two hours, instead of the Dardennes’ usual ninety minutes), and one finds oneself missing that succinct brevity and tight focus characteristic of the Dardennes. The first three quarters of The Unknown Girl appear to progress at a productive, if leisurely, pace, until a number of contrivances worthy of a rote thriller are used to tie up the core mystery. Its conclusions are melodramatic, preachy contrivances that seem out of sync with the realist atmosphere in a Dardenne brothers film.

Meanwhile, Adèle Haenel anchors this film, and is the driving force in what makes The Unknown Girl most compelling. While her face inherently projects an angelic innocence, she plays against a potential for naïveté, shading Jenny with a mature sobriety, wisdom, empathy, and reserved judgment, especially in scenes where Jenny is required to draw the truth out of people privy to the mysterious circumstances leading to the young woman’s death. Her contribution is particularly essential to any of The Unknown Girl‘s success: the way in which the plot unfolds, and information is revealed, leads to an implication critical of the bureaucracy’s competence or efficiency that veers toward the dogmatic, but Haenel resists playing Jenny as an unqualified everywoman who has the instinct and reason to more authoritatively pursue justice and truth. Instead, she highlights Jenny’s role as a mediator, as confused as everyone else, who is only ever noble because of her earnest humility and self-awareness.

While they relatively fumble The Unknown Girl‘s last act, and even if it carries an air of disappointment, this is more by nature of who the Dardennes (already double Palme d’or winners) are, and what they are capable of (especially on the heels of the masterful Two Days, One Night). With The Unknown Girl, the Dardennes prove that even when not in top form, they can still be probing, approaching morally dubious conundrums from multiple angles, often with insight.