Who’s that girl?
Belgian mystery now streaming in America
In The Unknown Girl, Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) is a young doctor working in a small, hole-in-the-wall clinic adjacent to a major urban expressway in the Belgian town of Liege. The film opens in apparently routine fashion with Jenny finishing with one last patient and closing up for the night. She and her somewhat troubled intern are still on the premises when someone rather insistently rings the outside buzzer, but she chooses not to reopen at such a late hour.
The next day, Jenny learns that the dead body of a young woman has been found in an area near the clinic. The police get involved and find surveillance video suggesting that the victim may well have been the person frantically seeking after-hours entry to Jenny’s clinic.
The police question Jenny, not as a suspect, but rather as someone who might help them identify the nameless victim and/or any denizens of the area who might know her. No one blames her for not answering the door, but she’s haunted by a sense of guilt and responsibility, and she proceeds to improvise her own investigation into the case, in hopes of at least finding a name or an address for next-of-kin.
With conventional filmmakers, that might be the setup for a briskly complicated murder mystery, a police procedural with a physician-detective operating simultaneously as a trained professional and an inspired amateur. All of that is in play in The Unknown Girl, but the fraternal filmmakers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, have a special flair for approaching familiar subject matter—and ordinary workaday experience as well—from fresh and unexpected angles.
And so the murder mystery in The Unknown Girl quietly propels Jenny and others into a more soulful kind of character drama, with low-key crises of conscience, deadpan moral reckonings and small but vivid epiphanies occurring at the personal and social levels alike.
As always with the Dardennes, there is also a quietly persistent socio-political dimension to the story: Jenny’s clinic is in a “bad” neighborhood marked by both the diversity and the deprivations of 21st century society, the economic disjunctions of a globalized workforce play a role in some of the characters’ moral quandaries, etc.
Haenel’s gently nuanced practicality in the lead role is perfectly in keeping with the film’s overall style. Fabrizio Rongione and Dardenne regulars Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet are the big names in the ample supporting cast, but there are no star turns here. Olivier Bonnaud (as Davin’s downcast intern), Louka Minnella (as a teenaged patient named Bryan), Ben Hamidou (as Inspector Ben Mahmoud), and especially Nadège Ouedraogo (as a cybercafe cashier) all make strong contributions to the film’s gallery of guilty knowledge and moral hesitation.