Cannes 2016: The Dardenne Brothers chase another Palme d'Or with The Unknown Girl

(Image credit: Les Films Du Fleuve)

With their socially aware, grounded, forceful dramas, the Dardenne brothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc) are modern cinema’s conscience. In their 10th film, The Unknown Girl, conscience is the theme, with several players tormented by guilt into doing the right thing. Being the Dardennes, who like to keep things small and focused, any echoes of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment are kept muffled and muted, and themes play out organically, without fanfare. The result is not among the brothers’ best (Rosetta, The Promise, The Child, Two Days, One Night) but is another fine addition to a remarkable body of work.

As with many of the Dardennes’ previous dramas, the setting is Liege in the east of Belgium, the area where they grew up. Jenny (Adèle Haenel), a young doctor, is working late one night when the doorbell buzzes. She ignores it, determined to finish up, and the next day learns that a young woman – the very same woman who buzzed, as revealed by the surgery’s CCTV – has been found dead close by. Jenny is plagued by guilt.

Like Two Days, One Night, The Unknown Girl effectively makes a movie out of putting the same scenario on spin-cycle. Then it was Marion Cotillard going door to door to ask each of her work colleagues to forgo their bonuses so that she might keep her job; now it is Haenel showing a photo of the dead woman to various patients and locals, determined to learn an identity so that the grave might be marked. 

By the Dardennes’ standards, this is a full-blown plot, but don’t make the mistake of assuming that the presence of a murder mystery means the brothers are trying their hands at Hollywood-flavoured entertainment. Yes, there are moments of suspense and violence – a couple of thugs promise repercussions if Jenny doesn’t let it drop, and the father of a teenage patient who might know something flies into a dangerous tantrum – but this procedural ‘thriller’ is neither smartly labyrinthine or especially urgent. 

Rather it is somebody bumbling along, trying to do right. There are, of course, no inspirational reveals and not a single shred of Sherlockian problem-solving. Any moves towards resolution instead rest on people finally offering key testimony when their guilt reaches a point that they can no longer harbour their secrets. It makes for flat drama, perhaps, but that is the point: The Unknown Girl is not even particularly propulsive despite the brothers employing their signature style of shooting over characters’ shoulders as they walk and talk, hustle and bustle; the panting, panicked search for the missing baby in The Child is far more agile and dynamic.

Some viewers might find Jenny frustratingly blank, with audiences denied a backstory and Haenel keeping the same moue-of-disappointment expression on her face for the majority of the action (the couple of smiles she does offer up feel lopsided and tacked-on). But Haenel is a terrific actress, emotionally present in every scene despite her controlled features, and with a face that demands scrutiny. It matters not if she is visiting a trailer that might prove key in the investigation or treating a diabetic man for foot sores, her every (in)action in her day-to-day is absorbing.

Around her are a gallery of returning faces, with The Dardennes again handing employment to Jérémie Renier, Olivia Gourmet, Fabrizio Rongione and Thomas Doret, who deliver, as you’d expect, faultlessly naturalistic performances. Each unfussily does their part in a drama that is strong, though surely not strong enough to add to the Dardennes previous two Palmes (Rosetta, The Child).

Editor-at-Large, Total Film

Jamie Graham is the Editor-at-Large of Total Film magazine. You'll likely find them around these parts reviewing the biggest films on the planet and speaking to some of the biggest stars in the business – that's just what Jamie does. Jamie has also written for outlets like SFX and the Sunday Times Culture, and appeared on podcasts exploring the wondrous worlds of occult and horror.