You know that old saying “Lesser Dardennes is still better than most anything else?” OK, it’s not an old saying because I just made it up. But it should be. Because with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, movies that fall several notches down on their list of achievements are significantly better than the vast bulk of cinema being created today. Case in point, their latest jaunt through the landscapes of Seraing, Belgium, La fille inconnue (The Unknown Girl).
As in the brothers’ last movie, 2014’s Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night), La fille inconnue relentlessly follows a woman on her equally relentless mission. In 2014, Marion Cotillard was Sandra, desperately petitioning her co-workers to forego their bonuses so that she might keep her job. In 2017, it is Adele Haenel as Dr. Jenny Davin, no less desperate in her attempts to identify a dead woman. Both movies are comprised of a series of scenes in which the heroine encounters a range of uncooperative associates and must use her will to try and bend them.
The biggest failing of La fille inconnue derives from the decision to place theme above character. This is an unusual decision for filmmakers who have so steadfastly revealed big ideas through the meticulous study of highly grounded characters. In all of their major works – La Promesse, Rosetta, The Son, L’enfant, The Kid With the Bike, and Deux jours… – they have offered startlingly clear insight into what drives humans. Often they are concerned with “normal” people driven to exaggerated lengths. That is true in La fille inconnue, and yet at least part of that intimacy seems to be missing. By the time we had spent those two days and one night with Sandra, she was an open book. A wonderfully complex and raw open book. But Jenny rarely opens up to us in the new movie. This is not the fault of Haenel, who gives a towering performance of strength and subtlety. But it seems to be the filmmakers’ intention to withhold large pieces of Jenny from us.
Early in the movie, we will see her tirelessly tend to her working class patients, but also refuse to respond to an after-hours knock on her clinic door. This decision will have consequences which will lead her to question her own life choices and embark on a rather dangerous pursuit. She will put her career and her very life in jeopardy when learns that the girl who had knocked on her door that night was found dead the next morning.
Jenny gives up a lucrative job offer and repeatedly puts herself in harm’s way to try to – well, here’s the key to the Dardennes. In the hands of almost any other filmmakers, Jenny would have been trying to solve the mystery of the girl’s death. Was it a murder? If so, who done it? Many of the characters she questions assume that she is trying to blame them for the possible crime. But this is not Jenny’s goal. Jenny’s motivation is right there in the title of the movie. The girl is “unknown.” She has no identity. Beyond the fact that she appears to be an African immigrant, the police do not know her name. No one, it seems, knows her name.
That is what Jenny cannot abide. The Dardennes refuse to offer any back story for Jenny to explain why this is so important to her. The obvious explanation is that the mere fact of her humanity ought to be enough. This decision does not yield quite the same emotional impact that we derive from our intimacy with earlier Dardennes characters. But it certainly does throw a moral fast ball right at us. It demands a reaction.
If you doubt that this question is at the heart of La fille inconnue, consider the third act of the story. (SPOILER ALERT) The question of what happened to the girl is resolved early in the final act, and it is resolved in a rather mundane manner. Some of the criticism the film has received centers on the fact that Dardennes brothers have made a rather ordinary murder mystery, which seems so out of line with their past output. There is some validity to that claim. But we are not supposed to focus on the explanation of what happened. After that “what” is revealed, the final sequence blows it away. It is pure Dardennes and it is excellent. In that final sequence, we get the answer to the real question that Jenny has been asking. We find out who the girl is. It is a heartfelt scene which offers great insight – not into Jenny – but into a heretofore minor character. This decision to resolve the murder mystery first and then resolve the question of identity is a typically bold move and is key to understanding the effectiveness of the Dardennes brothers.
Or, I suppose you could go watch Flatliners, a remake of a high-concept notion, literally and figuratively devoid of life. La fille inconnue may not have won the brothers their third Palme d’Or, but it is still so much better than most of what you can go see today. Reminds me of that old saying…