By Daniel Barnes
The Dardenne Brothers, those Belgian purveyors of austerity and despair, have always been a tough sell for mainstream audiences. Their films are so raw, so pure, so devoid of artifice and often so hopeless that it’s hard to explain how the act of watching them can be such an engrossing, white-knuckle experience.
Still, even the auteur geeks shrugged their shoulders at Luc and Jean-Pierre’s latest effort when it premiered last year at Cannes, and for a good reason. This disaffected, by-the-numbers effort feels more like the work of the filmmakers that they influenced than the real McCoy.
Adèle Haenel plays Jenny Davin, a talented doctor who goes into a liberal guilt tailspin when an unidentified young woman denied late-night entry into the clinic winds up dead. In an attempt to determine the dead woman’s identity, Jenny obsessively pursues the case. In the process, she crosses one professional line after another while maintaining a strangely strict confidentiality policy.
All of the Dardenne Brothers elements are in place, including regulars Olivier Gourmet and Jérémie Renier in crucial supporting roles. However, The Unknown Girl never manages to build tension, and we don’t get emotionally involved in Jenny’s journey. A sleepy lead performance from Haenel certainly doesn’t help. The bigger problem is that much like the lead character in Lorna’s Silence, Jenny’s only defining trait is her kamikaze self-sacrifice.
I’m sure there’s a Christian allegory that I’m missing here. That said, a blandly sturdy, stutter-stop drama is a blandly sturdy, stutter-stop drama in any denomination.