It’s the first word of dialogue spoken in the Dardenne brothers’ The Unknown Girl, as Dr. Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel), stethoscope held to the back of a heavyset, older patient, presses her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) to diagnose the condition of the man, whose heavy breathing dominates an otherwise mostly silent opening shot.
Jenny will do a lot of listening in the drama that follows. First, though, will come a moment when she does not listen — the only time in the film she ignores a bid for her attention, but that one time hangs over the rest of the film as Jenny, a general practitioner at a modest urban clinic in Seraing, Belgium, finds herself increasingly consumed by the death of a teenaged African girl who may have been murdered.
Sooner or later, in every film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne over their 20-plus career as narrative filmmakers, the protagonist comes to such a turning point, a moral test on which everything turns. It may come early or late, and they may fail the test or pass it, but afterward nothing is the same.
Never before, though, has the moment been so mundane, so seemingly dramatically irrelevant, at least until the next day. The consequences are disproportionately devastating: Someone is dead instead of alive. There’s no way Jenny could have known, of course. Everyone assures her it’s not her fault.
But, by a capricious logic of moral obligation in chaotic systems, Jenny understands that she is implicated in this death and can’t disavow all responsibility. She had an excellent rationale for the choice she made; if only that rationale had been her real motive.
We can all think of any number of turning points in our lives in which we see after the fact how a trivially different past choice would have had utterly incommensurate and unpredictable effects, for better or for worse. If one hadn’t happened to go to a certain social event, one never would have met one’s future spouse — or the terrible accident never would have happened. You never know.
But when we know we ought to have chosen otherwise — when the choice we made was contrary, however trivially, to the values to which we’ve devoted our life or our career — then we may well feel that the harmful consequences of our actions are in some way on us. This is even more the case if there is no one else to accept responsibility, to do what needs doing.
Very little of this is spelled out in The Unknown Girl. The Dardennes show; they don’t tell. Their handheld camera, patient and objective, closely tracks Jenny around the public clinic she’s holding down until the prestigious private partnership she has always wanted is officially hers. There’s a lot of wordless silence as Jenny works — more than any Dardennes film since 2002’s The Son — but also a lot of listening to dialogue.
In keeping with her dictum that a good doctor must control emotions in order to make a good diagnosis, Jenny’s bearing is disciplined and reserved, so much so that the film’s title could almost as well refer to her as to the dead girl, found without ID (Ange-Déborah Goulehi) and glimpsed alive only in a few seconds of surveillance video and, significantly, a still frame from this video that Jenny carries on her iPhone.
Perhaps it’s because the girl was not a patient that she so easily bypasses the doctor’s defenses, in the process highlighting that Jenny’s defenses are perhaps too robust. She never so much as heard the dead girl’s voice, but now she can’t stop hearing her inside her head.
As always, the Belgian brothers interweave moral concerns with social, economic, political and (sometimes, as here) racial themes. The partnership Jenny wants to join is in the city of Liège in the province of the same name, but the public clinic where she’s hanging her hat is about 20 minutes away in struggling, postindustrial Seraing, the Dardennes’ hometown and the setting for all of their films.
One client is an undocumented immigrant (Kamil Alisultanov) who doesn’t speak French and has allowed a burn injury from work to become infected rather than risk going to the hospital. Another is an elderly, obese, diabetic semi-invalid (Jean-Michel Balthazar) whose most pressing need turns out to be getting help with social services regarding heat in his apartment.
As for the unknown girl — an undocumented immigrant with no known family or connections — there’s a police investigation, but she’s the kind of person who tends to fall through the cracks without a trace.
Jenny becomes consumed with the thought that the girl will be buried as she lived and as she died, unmarked by the world, in a potter’s field. Burying the dead, one of the seven corporal works of mercy, looms over the film, for it matters not only that the dead are buried, but how and by whom.
Learning the girl’s name becomes a growing preoccupation that Jenny follows to increasingly obsessive extremes, until an exasperated police inspector (Ben Hamidou) has to tell her to stop poking around: “We’re the detectives.”
Jenny’s tenacious search is, of course, a quest for atonement, not only for herself, but also in the end for others. A physician of the body, she becomes a kind of physician of the soul, her clinic office a secular confessional, sealed by her ethic of doctor-patient confidentiality. (The Dardennes had a strict Catholic upbringing, and the religious symbolism here is conscious, as they confirmed when I asked them about it at the New York Film Festival.) Not many penitents reflect that the priest absolving the sins of others is also working out his own salvation.
In two of three crucial confession scenes, there is even a hint of the anonymity of the confessional screen. One patient confesses with his face turned away from the doctor, while another demands that she turn her face from him.
But this is perhaps an imperfect concession to human weakness and shame. The best confession, the Dardennes suggest in the final scene, is made face to face. This reflects their belief in the moral power of “the face of the Other,” a key notion in the thought of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, an important influence for the Dardennes.
Despite the aura of naturalism reflecting the Dardennes’ background in documentary filmmaking, their films are subtly expressive and stylized, with fable-like plots and carefully controlled environments and design.
Jenny’s mission resembles a detective procedural, but, unlike a real exercise in crime or thriller genre filmmaking, there are ultimately no false leads or red herrings; it turns out that the unknown girl is much less unknown to many more people than it might have seemed.
In part for this reason, along with criticism of its pacing, the film got a cooler reception at its 2016 Cannes premiere than most Dardenne films. (In response to these criticisms, the Dardennes produced a recut version that ran seven minutes shorter.)
Is this a structural flaw in the film? Or is it a thematic choice? We are all connected, all responsible for one another — our brother’s keeper, and our sister’s. (This theme is perhaps strengthened by the presence of a number of the Dardennes’ past collaborators, from regulars Olivier Gourmet, Jérémie Renier and Fabrizio Rongione to The Kid With the Bike’s Thomas Doret and Morgan Marinne, last seen in Two Days, One Night.)
We are all implicated in the death of an “unknown” stranger in our midst. And the road to redemption lies in taking responsibility, in listening, and in never ignoring someone in need.
Caveat Spectator: Troubling subject matter relating to the death of the title character; brief moments of violence and menace; references to prostitution and a couple of explicit sexual references. Older teens and up.