The Unknown Girl

MPAA Rating: NR | Rating: ★★★★★
Release year: 2017
Genre: Drama, Mystery Director: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne


It is an invitation, an exhortation, a command. Listen. This is the first word spoken in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ latest masterpiece, a parabolic moral mystery that is at-once quite ordinary in terms of its genre conventions, yet extraordinary in its formal brilliance and ethical considerations. Listen. This is a film for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. If this is a “minor” Dardennes film, which was the critical reception coming from Cannes in 2016, it is nonetheless a masterful piece of art. If only all filmmakers could produce “minor” works like this one.

“Listen.” The speaker of this simple phrase is Jenny (Adèle Haenel), a youthful, ambitious doctor who serves her working-class patients with rich empathy and a sense of purpose. Jenny is the kind of doctor who makes house calls late in the evening, walking through the rain and climbing the steps of concrete-and-glass apartment buildings in urban Belgium in order to reach her patients. She replaces bandages, stitches wounds, holds onto secrets. She presses her hand upon their wrists, listening for their heartbeats, the human touch conveying a sense of connection. Being a doctor means being invited into people’s homes and lives; it is a vocation of intimacy. We enter the film’s narrative in the midst of transition, when Jenny is moving from one practice to another, taking on new patients and saying goodbye to old ones. This change is more than just medical records or office buildings–it is a transfer of attachments and familiarities, as Jenny must say goodbye to former patients in order to make room for the new ones. As a pastor who has served at four different churches, and thus has had to say goodbye to four different congregations, I can empathize with the emotions experienced in such a transition. We leave a part of our hearts behind, even as we have to open our hearts to new friends and human encounters.

A moral crisis disrupts this already-emotional transition as the door to the medical clinic buzzes an hour after closing. Medical intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) goes to answer it, but in the moment, Jenny uses it to teach Julien a lesson in doctor-patient boundaries. They don’t open the door; the buzzer only rings once, and Jenny notes that if it was an emergency, they’d call again. It’s a non-moment in the narrative–there is nothing formally which elevates this scene to one of moral significance–but it proves to be the transformative decision of Jenny’s entire life when it is revealed that a young woman is found dead across the street from the clinic. Seen on surveillance footage, the unknown girl had attempted to get into the clinic building, seemingly to escape from an unseen assailant. If the door had been opened, who knows?

Jenny feels…responsible? Guilty? Remorse? Empathy? All of the above. The Dardennes have a knack for creating simple-yet-knotty ethical situations which invite the viewer to both empathize with the characters even as they contemplate their own what-would-I-do? response. I viewed this film partly as a film critic, partly as a PhD scholar researching the Dardennes’ style and their resonance with theology and ethics. So while I attempted to see it from a critical and formal lens for research, I still found myself moved to tears as the story unfolded. It’s also an excellent mystery story. Next to Le Fils and Rosetta, this is the Dardennes’ most suspenseful film, imbued with a sense of dread as Jenny plays detective and attempts to track down the origins of the unknown girl. As she searches and inquires, numerous characters give her various reasons to cease her quest–it’s not her job, she’s not responsible for the girl’s death, quit bothering people with questions. But Jenny presses forward, driven by an internal motivation which is never wholly revealed. If she was not the Good Samaritan in this parable, perhaps she can still be the Prodigal Son of another parable, returning to her senses and remembering who she truly is–a doctor, compassionate and confident, able to help people. Haenel portrays Jenny with a quiet strength and resolve; she is smart and resourceful, and rarely shaken by what she encounters, though she is not unfeeling or unsympathetic. Other Dardennes regulars appear as various characters, with Jérémie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Fabrizio Rongione, Thomas Doret, and Morgan Marinne all providing important supporting roles. (The appearance of these actors might be my one minor quibble; one begins to be drawn out of the film’s reality as one looks for familiar faces from Dardennes films.)

Communication and technology are significant in The Unknown Girl. Call phones, apartment intercoms, surveillance cameras, and door buzzer serve as the barriers and bridges between human interaction. Jenny is often interrupted in a conversation by a phone call or the clinic doorbell; it happens so often that we begin to expect it with each new scene. So it’s significant when Jenny meets people face to face, looking them in the eye, entering in physical proximity with the Other. The Dardennes’ style of realism paves the way towards the transcendent–in seeing the actual humanity of the Other, we may also encounter the divine. In our present age of technological mediation and online political conflict, The Unknown Girl reminds us of the immense power of seeing another human being’s face, looking a person in the eyes, and experiencing a warm embrace. “Listen.” We are invited to not only listen, but to see, to touch, to feel. Walls can come down and doors may be opened if we would only listen. In this, we may begin to genuinely love our neighbors as ourselves.

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