The Dardennes brothers return this year with yet another beautiful feature, The Unknown Girl (La Fille Inconnue). The film, which premiered earlier at the Cannes Film Festival, follows their recent pattern of focusing on a female lead: in previous years, we encountered Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night and Cecile de France in The Kid with a Bike. The Unknown Girl stars Adele Haenel as Jenny, a young and ambitious doctor living on the outskirts of Liege, Belgium and struggling with unexpected and tragic circumstances.
Jenny works as a substitute doctor in a small family practice, but is on the verge of accepting a lucrative research position in a prestigious medical center. One night, after closing time, the door buzzes, but Jenny ignores the call. She finds out the next day that the caller, a young girl, was killed a few moments later. Jenny begins to obsess over finding out the unknown girl’s name, a search for truth that slowly takes over her life and career.
Typical of the Dardennes, the film quietly discusses social engagement, inequality and the difficulties of mobility across each social stratum. Jenny is a single woman working full-time, with the opportunity to climb the socio-economic ranks by transferring to a renowned research center. However, for reasons left unclear, she turns it down for a small and dying medical practice. We suspect her decision to be a result of her guilt towards her disadvantaged patients.
When asked why they chose a woman doctor as their protagonist, the Dardennes brothers, solemn and enigmatic, announced that they “don’t find the characters; the characters find them.” It makes sense for Jenny to be a female doctor: people trust her and therefore talk to her; however, she can also be extremely vulnerable, especially when confronting people with the truth. Throughout her informal investigation, she rarely experiences kindness or understanding, but is instead brutalized, assaulted or threatened by dominant male figures.
We can easily consider Jenny’s search for the truth in parallel with the directors’ search for a cinematic truth: as respected art filmmakers, the Dardennes brothers, here more than ever, prefer bold simplicity in their style through handheld cameras and a lack of music. These aesthetic choices strip down the film of mainstream practices and instead offer an accurate and truthful depiction of reality.
The Unknown Girl met with mixed reviews at the Cannes Film Festival, but the directors have since recut the film. The question of reediting a film after its release pops up in my mind: can a director, when faced with negative but constructive criticism, go back to the editing room to produce a better work of art, or should we expect them to get it right the first time? For The Unknown Girl, the recut definitely worked to its advantage; after 32 cuts (adding up to 7 minutes of footage), the film flows and paces much better now than at Cannes in May.