Jenny Davin, the doctor at the heart of The Unknown Girl, is good at her job. Played by Adèle Haenel, she’s patient, flexible and agreeable. Her medical knowledge is vast as she deals with a comprehensive cross-section of Belgian society, from asthmatic seniors to wounded immigrant workers fearing deportation to pediatric cancer patients. She makes house calls, and seems to be on the job constantly, with no social life we can discern. The Hippocratic oath is strong with this one.
But we all have our limits. Jenny, who has been filling in for a recently retired physician for the past three months, is poised to begin a lucrative job at another clinic. One night, with a welcome party looming from her new employer, and having already put in an hour’s overtime, she ignores an after-hours door buzz while filing paperwork in the office annex. She advises her intern, an impressionable young snowflake named Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), to remain seated. If it was really an urgent matter, the patient would buzz twice, Jenny insists.
The next day, two police officers show up at the door to her office. An 18-year-old girl of African heritage, discovered in the morning with a fatal skull fracture near a construction site, is soon to be identified as the desperate patient buzzing the clinic for help.
Though a plot like this could have been conceived by Kieslowski or Chabrol, The Unknown Girl is unmistakably the work of the Dardenne Brothers, echoing the characteristic formal rigor and complex moral calculus of their impressive oeuvre. As in much of their work, it examines the tragic fallout of a small but momentous decision.
Like their debut feature, La Promesse, it pivots on an accidental death and the heavy weight it places on the living; as with 2014’s Two Days, One Night, it’s about a woman on a quest. Burdened by a guilty conscience and a bleeding heart, Jenny plays amateur detective to solve the mystery of the Jane Doe’s death, in which her medical smarts and intuition will play a major factor.
As potential suspects emerge — a man and his elderly father, who spend too much time in a shady van under a bridge; an evasive young patient and his protective parents; a pair of shifty regulars at a cybercafé outside of town — The Unknown Girl’s novelistic intrigue deepens. (If there’s a caveat, it’s the number of coincidences required to solve the case: Jenny’s investigation proceeds with narrative corner-cutting that’s occasionally difficult to accept.)
Resolution eventually arrives, but by the time it does, it almost doesn’t matter. In the Dardennes’ understated, accumulative presentation, there’s enough guilt to fill a volume of Poe. The directors ask us to question how many people can be held responsible for a person’s death, and the answers are unsettling. Lives impacted by the incident also extend to a traumatized Julien, Jenny’s intern, who retreats from five years of medical school after the night in question. There’s plenty of hurt to go around.
It’s to the Dardennes’ humanist credit that even the characters most to blame for the loss of life earn our pity. Each actor, perfectly chosen for his or her poker face, becomes a pained receptacle for the movie’s harsh societal realities, which examine the underclass status of disenfranchised minorities without rubbing our noses in it.
The Dardennes’ singular approach to cinematography has become looser since the early days, when their suffocating camera would hover around their protagonists’ shoulders like an insatiable insect. The Unknown Girl is comprised mostly of medium shots, allowing for breathing room and contemplation. But the brothers still never edit within a scene, letting life unspool as it is, allowing nobody the easy out of a cutaway.
THE UNKNOWN GIRL (LA FILLE INCONNUE). Directors: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne; Cast: Adèle Haenel, Olivier Bonnaud, Jeremie Renier, Louka Minnella; Distributor: IFC; Not rated; in French with English subtitles. Now playing at Savor Cinema in Fort Lauderdale and Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood; opens Friday at Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton and Lake Worth Playhouse in Lake Worth.