A doorbell rings, but your office closed half an hour ago. The next day, an unidentified woman is found dead by the river across the street. Security video reveals that she attempted to seek refuge from something, or someone, at your practice. This is the narrative context for Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl.
In spite of the premise’s dramatic potential, the film really follows the young doctor who ignores the call of the doorbell and the aftermath of her inhospitality. Jenny Davin — superbly played by Adèle Haenel — is a junior practitioner in a small public clinic run by a retiring doctor. On the precipice of moving into private practice, her name has already been placed on the door of a new office. But when she finds herself an unwitting accomplice to this small tragedy, Jenny resolves to take over the public clinic and discover what happened. Hounding the police for information and discreetly yet insistently pursuing trails that others seem uninterested in investigating, she pieces together a picture of the events of that evening little by little.
The Unknown Girl does not build suspense like a typical thriller, and it does not aspire to fit the genre, as the Dardenne brothers forgo heightened music and narrative conventions that broadcast to the viewer when they need to be kept on the edge of their seats. Instead, their signature austere film realism draws viewers into a world that can be easily recognized until violent outbursts punctuate the scene. The heroine pursues her daily medical work as she goes about sleuthing, and the latter activity is never privileged over the former. Viewers witness the constant telephone calls and text messages from her patients, the pleasantries exchanged before and after an examination, and the unpleasant realities of treating a variety of diseases. Masculine aggression interrupts this labor. Men confront Jenny frequently and often without warning.
The unsettling result is a lifelike presentation of the kinds of violence that ordinary women can face every day. Realistically transmitting the quotidian whilst engaging their audience in a story is a unique talent of the Dardennes, and The Unknown Girl should be applauded for providing both narrative and visual pleasures. Haenel’s Jenny becomes both completely exposed (with her every move followed throughout the day) and an opaque character. Viewers are not privy to much of her thinking. Her motivations for abandoning career ambitions and uncovering the truth about the girl are suggested but, wisely, never fully explained.
Who exactly The Unknown Girl of the title is, then, becomes an even more complex question. So absorbed by her work, her patients and the mystery at hand, Jenny lacks a personal life. Spending her nights at the clinic, the Dardennes’ hardly show anything of the character’s home. The only potential for romance seems to come from an intern that she chastises and then later tries to console. The smart phone interrupts whatever time she might have alone. This lack of character interiority, however, only contributes to the plausibility of the film’s action. In the end, the film may not tell audiences much more about Jenny than it does about the deceased girl. What it vibrantly presents, however, is her modest yet determined resilience in the face of a multitude of tiny threats. And that makes both Jenny and The Unknown Girl quietly heroic.
Aaron Boalick (@FlixCritic) is a freelance film critic in New York City and Adjunct Faculty in the Film Division of Columbia University.