The acclaimed Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have twice won the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. They were most recently at the festival last year with The Unknown Girl, about a young doctor trying to solve a murder mystery that lands at her doorstep. Film critic Justin Chang says:
Even if you’ve never seen a film directed by the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, chances are you’ve seen one that bears their influence. Unflinchingly observed, shot with intimate handheld cameras and grounded in stark working-class environments, their exemplary social-realist dramas have left their stylistic imprint on pictures as different as Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Andrea Arnold’s American Honey.
But what sets the Dardennes’ movies apart is their consistent moral vision and piercing emotional honesty, their understanding that the most gripping stories are borne not of narrative contrivance but of human desperation. Every one of their films is a thriller of conscience and an action movie in the truest sense, not because the characters are armed and dangerous, but because even their smallest actions are shown to have unpredictable and often shattering consequences.
That simple truth is made startlingly clear right at the beginning of the directors’ absorbing new film, The Unknown Girl. The story follows a young doctor named Jenny Davin (played by Adèle Haenel), who works at a small clinic in Seraing, a Belgian factory town where most of the Dardennes’ films are set. When we first meet Jenny, she’s seeing a few patients along with her intern, Julien (played by Olivier Bonnaud). It’s after 8 o’clock at night and the two are exhausted, so when the door buzzes, Jenny orders Julien not to answer it.
We don’t think much of this brief, seemingly throwaway exchange. But the next morning, a police detective comes around 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, shortly before her death, the girl approached the door of the clinic, frantically rang the buzzer and then ran off when no one answered.
“If I’d opened the door, she’d still be alive,” Jenny says, and while no one blames her for ignoring an after-hours visitor, the doctor feels a deep sense of personal guilt. While the police go about their investigation, Jenny begins playing detective, determined to find out 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. None of them does, though she soon realizes that at least one of them is lying, in a clever twist that makes ingenious use of her medical expertise.