THE UNKNOWN GIRL: A Forgettable Misfire From Europe’s Leading Director Duo

Although they make social realist films, it is easy to argue that the Dardenne brothers are heavily influenced by intricately plotted thrillers. They make films about the trials and tribulations of lower class life, yet always fit their social commentary into narratives designed to leave the viewer on the edge of their seat.

They take narrative liberties and occasionally portray events that stretch credulity (the central concept of prior film Two Days, One Night isn’t fully believable, because of an innate corporate cruelty to its mentally ill protagonist), but the down-to-earth tone of their entire filmography makes it feel inarguably realistic nonetheless.

Lost in translation from script to screen

The Unknown Girl sees the directors yet again flirt with their beloved recurrent theme of criminality, here taking their most overt detour into procedural thriller territory to date. Structurally, the film all but echoes Two Days, One Night, as we follow female doctor Jenny (Adèle Haenel) as she tries to find out the identity of the titular “unknown girl” who died just moments away from her practice after she left to tend to a patient the night before.

The comparisons couldn’t be more blatant. Marion Cotillard’s character in the brothers’ previous directorial effort was travelling from door to door, begging for colleagues to part with their bonuses so she could keep her employment. Here we have an equally theoretically daunting procedural as Jenny goes from suspect to suspect, trying to uncover the deceased woman’s identity.

Despite high narrative stakes and a narrative which sounds nail-biting on paper, the film is a rare misstep in the Dardennes’ assured back catalogue. This isn’t due to the narrative, which is well constructed, yet seems to have lost something in translation during the transition from page to screen – an edge of your seat thriller that feels oddly inert. The brothers never let realism get in the way of a suspenseful story; their thrilling dramas don’t normally feel like they are stretching credulity due to how they effortlessly create believable characters and deliver a snapshot of working class life that seems recognisable. Here, their intentions have defeated them.

THE UNKNOWN GIRL: A Forgettable Misfire From Europe's Leading Director Duo
source: Sundance Selects

The Unknown Girl feels like a conscious attempt to subvert the standard tropes of a procedural thriller narrative by downplaying them. It renders the film a failure on two accounts; firstly, the idea of a nurse walking away from her professional life to become engrossed in a murder mystery feels at odds with the realistically mundane tone the brothers have created. Secondly, it just exposes how undercooked the screenplay is – the brothers follow standard narrative beats for the genre, with interspersed scenes of a realistic day in the doctor’s waiting room that weigh the finished product down. The plot never becomes engaging, because the directors never do anything to make it feel distinctive for the genre, or make it feel emotionally honest – and when they go for straightforward realism in the surgery vignettes, it adds absolutely nothing to the central storyline.

If The Unknown Girl is a character study, then this may be their first film in which the Dardennes have ushered uninteresting characters to the screen. The lead character, for example, feels oddly detached and underwritten, never truly sold as an empathetic figure, an accidental antihero or somebody we can “root for” in her search for the truth. Haenel’s performance doesn’t feel restrained in the manner of so many great performances the directors have managed to coax out of actors over the years – it feels inert, a fault of design due to a screenplay that doesn’t even allude to the character having a life outside of her job and her engrossing fascination with the mysterious girl.

Recut for theatrical release, yet still a resounding disappointment

When The Unknown Girl premiered at Cannes earlier this year, it was noticeable how muted the reaction was. At a festival where initial audience responses can be divided into either ecstatic praise or vitriolic hatred, the undercooked drama barely registered. As two of the most consistent European filmmakers working today, that the movie didn’t even register as a disappointment is saying something – it was given a Gallic shrug and swept under the carpet, with critics appearing to forget about the film almost immediately.

THE UNKNOWN GIRL: A Forgettable Misfire From Europe's Leading Director Duo
source: Sundance Selects

Since the film’s premiere, the Dardennes cut several minutes of footage from it to reportedly tighten up the narrative, but the end result still feels so inconsequential, even the most vocal lovers of the sibling filmmakers will struggle to remember it mere days after viewing. This isn’t a hidden classic in their filmography that will grow to be reassessed after an initial indifferent reaction, it is a minor footnote in their back catalogue that will only continue to shrink in stature.

It may be the case that The Unknown Girl falters due to high expectations; after all, they are two of the continent’s most highly regarded directors, with a batting average many other filmmakers would kill for. However, if this were your first exposure to the directors, you likely wouldn’t be sold on the idea that they could make emotionally engaging films elsewhere whilst sticking to the same realist template.

Conclusion

The Unknown Girl aims for higher narrative stakes than your average social realist drama, yet it is ultimately defeated by limited scope and underwritten characters. Every filmmaker is allowed one effort that falls short of the mark, and this is the Dardennes‘ first notable failure – so I have no doubt they will return from this undercooked misfire with another work of heart-wrenching brilliance.

What did you think of The Unknown Girl?

The Unknown Girl is out now on VOD and select theatres in the UK, with a US release to follow in 2017. All international release dates are here.

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