unknown girl review Adele Haenel, Jeremie RenierYear: 2017
Director(s): Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Writer(s): Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne
Region of Origin: Belgium, France

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Rating: Unrated
Digital, Color, 106 mins

Synopsis: A doctor gets obsessed with the case of a dead woman after learning that she had died shortly after ringing her door for help. (Source)

Each waking moment presents us with a series of choices. Some decisions, we barely give a second thought towards, others change the course of our lives and those around us. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl is about the latter. If you’re familiar with the Dardenne’s, then you know their forte lies within the complexities of human nature, oft times exploring split-second judgement and the relation between common decency and self preservation. The Unknown Girl features a shining example of such a quandary, a no-frills thriller that never succumbs to sensationalism, rendering its empathy through quiet emotion. Star Adele Haenel is magnetic throughout, anchoring everything with an understated performance that speaks volumes. From minute-to-minute, the Dardenne’s latest is far as you can get from the noise of blockbuster shoot-em-ups, finding intensity instead through intimate drama and its damning consequence.

Jenny (Adele Haenel) is a young, up-and-coming doctor on the cusp of landing a large promotion. Fighting after hours exhaustion one night, she and an intern decide to ignore the buzzer to their clinic. After a few brief rings, the buzzer stops, and she goes about her night, thinking nothing of it. Her actions turn out to have grave repercussions, however, when a pair of detectives show up at her doorstep the next day. As it turns out, the anonymous woman seeking help the night before has been found dead nearby and under mysterious circumstances. Consumed with grief, Jenny has a hard time forgiving herself and is motivated by guilt to learn more about the woman she might’ve saved. She immediately sets out to discover the woman’s identity, mounting her own investigation to give the deceased a proper burial.

As in their previous films, the Dardenne’s murder mystery is all about the moment. The plot plays out solely as a succession of mundane encounters, as Jenny searches for leads to her Jane Doe’s demise in any way she can. Things unfold like they might in real life, favoring scenes which prize discourse and dialogue rather than physical violence. Each scene is presented almost exclusively in single, uncut takes, allowing each character and their surroundings to breathe and just be. The approach is one that is measured and patient, offering no frills while also denying escape from terse intimacy. As each scene builds towards an inevitable conclusion, a bigger picture builds, one that exposes our lives as a fragile house of cards in which one tiny decision can make everything crumble. Compassion, indifference and restraint are the story’s biggest themes, keeping things downbeat but believable while a sense of dread hammers home how connected we are to one another.

unknown girl review Adele Haenel, Olivier BonnaudWhich such an emphasis on humanity, it’s Adele Haenel’s performance which acts as the film’s anchor. Haenel is essentially our guide through the Dardenne’s existential exploration, embodying empathy and uncertainty in ways that are utterly immersive. Haenel presents Jenny as a fully formed character – she’s logical and smart, even if she struggles with emotion, helping Adele to eschew film logic and act like a real person. The latter is an under appreciated trait that most films never ascribe to, only helping the film’s realism to hit that much harder. Olivier Bonnaud’s Julien and Jeremie Renier round things out and add more nuance to an already dense film.

The Unknown Girl is a true rarity, exploring the gulf between logic and emotion in ways that most films could never dream of. Though the film is deliberately not as entertaining as something meant to be fast and energetic, it’s always intellectually engaging and doesn’t let up in this respect. Finally, we get a procedural that is less about the procedure and more about the humanity that is constantly in danger of slipping through the cracks. The Dardenne’s latest is true to form, evoking the complexities that make us who we are, but also a plea for decency that is needed now more than ever.