Like the many other efforts of the Dardenne brothers, The Unknown Girl continues to play upon their knacks for approaching social realism but it’s also interesting to see the sort of route which they are taking in here. With The Unknown Girl, it feels more as if the Dardenne brothers are approaching the paths of a mystery film and yet it still feels like something that they would be making at least when watching them address what they always play out in their work. As of yet, it stands as my least favourite of the Dardenne brothers’ films but even their weaker efforts (pointing towards Two Days, One Night and Lorna’s Silence) still are fascinating in some way, and The Unknown Girl is not any different of a scenario.
Our story revolves around Jenny Davin, a doctor who is met with an unexpected feeling of guilt the moment in which she is informed that a woman who rang her doorbell had been found dead in the following morning after the incident. In no time, Jenny begins playing detective because she hears after burial that the name of the girl is still unknown and she cannot accept the lack of knowledge from any other family members who possibly may still be around. From the storyline alone it would be easy to assume that this may not be something that the Dardenne brothers would normally work with but somehow, they manage to create something that is both compelling and moving in equal measure – it’s an admirable effort which we are receiving.
In terms of how The Unknown Girl is representative of Jenny’s guilt, this is what makes the film work so well. It is from how the Dardenne brothers are depicting her arc from start to finish that highlights the success of The Unknown Girl. Adèle Haenel’s performance takes the spotlight, for she displays a specific range of emotional depth that speaks out for the film’s own gain, as it still remains intact with what the Dardenne brothers can achieve from the lead actors whom they acquire for their works, as they always aim to feel genuine. As we are watching Adèle Haenel’s performance in here, the guilt can be felt not only from her face but the actions which her character performs, which ultimately put her own place amongst her peers at risk given as she decides to play detective by going out to search for the girl’s identity.
Knowing what the Dardenne brothers can work around, it is interesting to see how they manage to turn to the mystery genre while still carrying their knack for social criticisms. Many traces of The Unknown Girl draw back to film-noir, especially when it comes to the emphasis on finding out who exactly is the titular “unknown girl” and how people who may be connected with said girl react especially when confronted with a harsh reality that faces them – but it also aids the vision which they are able to provide as like Jenny, there is a feeling of guilt coming into them especially when we look at how people whom are being questioned choose to remain silent or deny any knowledge of the girl. The Dardennes keep this image haunting the atmosphere of The Unknown Girl, and creates a more suspenseful nature for the work.
Where The Unknown Girl seems to falter, however, is a problem which pervades the third act. Given as so much has been established especially with the guilt that has overcome many people who may or may not have been linked to the girl, it was disappointing to see how the third act seemed to rely far too much upon conveniences for the plot in order to find a proper conclusion. Some of the revelations, however, are interesting in the least, but too much happens in a nature that feels so out of the blue that connections ultimately feel so vague. Some good moments end up saving the entirety of the third act from being a complete disaster especially when compared to the rest of the film, but even then it still feels distinctively weaker knowing what the Dardenne brothers were able to create.
The Unknown Girl is a fascinating turn for the Dardenne brothers but it also goes down as their weakest effort yet given as it seems to be a film which rushes to find a proper conclusion from what had come its way in the third act. That’s not to say it bogs down the entire film, which is excellent especially in its portrayal of guilt and how it has impacted people who may have knowledge of the incident, but the way it was handled could have come in a much better and more nuanced manner. At least when it came to managing the shifts in tone, the Dardenne brothers still remain successful. Which, all in all, is what The Unknown Girl has proven itself to be. It is the weakest offering of theirs by far, but it also shows the incredible consistency to their work.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Cinéart.
Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Screenplay by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Produced by Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Denis Freyd
Starring Adèle Haenel, Olivier Bonnaud, Jérémie Renier, Louka Minnella
Release Year: 2016
Running Time: 113 minutes