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Adèle Haenel in La Fille Inconnue

Review - The Unknown Girl by the Dardenne Brothers

By Matthew Anderson

Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have justly developed a brand of filmmaking synonymous with targeted, dispassionate but engrossing social realism. The Unknown Girl, the latest endeavour co-written, produced and directed by the pair, features in the Debate strand of the 2016 London Film Festival but sadly is unlikely to spark the heated thematic discussions they had perhaps hoped to achieve. It centres on the day to day stream of patients, house calls and drastic lack of sleep in the life of young doctor, Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel, Love at first fight), who appears in practically ever frame of this unorthodox, glacially paced investigation of a suspicious death.

With no establishing shot, The Unknown Girl begins with one of Jenny's elderly patient struggling for breath. Sadly, this is symptomatic of a film that itself rather wheezes and labours throughout. Self-assured to the point of being aloof and a little officious but nonetheless very thorough with all whom she treats, Jenny gives intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) such a dressing down when he fails to adequately react to a young child suffering a fit in the waiting room that the poor chap considers bailing on his medical career entirely. Questionable bedside manner aside, Jenny is clearly dedicated to her job. However, when the outer door buzzer sounds an hour after the practice is due to be closed she orders Julien not to answer it.

La Fille inconnue
La Fille inconnue

This act will prove to be a decisive fork in the road for Jenny as the girl who was turned away is found dead the next day on the banks of a river. This provokes a U-turn in the highly considered doc's upcoming promotion and a quest to ascertain the girl's identity and nature of her demise. In a film which is drastically devoid of displays of emotion – both positive (of which there are none at all) and negative (which are muted) - her reaction to this galling news is genuinely affecting and it must be said that Haenel's restrained performance is one of The Unknown Girl's strongest points.

From here onwards a persistent ringing on door bells, visits to houses – where she shows locals a photo of the girl in the hope of recognition, and scenes driving around Liège and its surrounds becomes a little monotonous, the film seemingly uncertain as to what it wants to become. A quasi-detective thriller? An inspection of the immigrant experience in Europe (the girl killed is from Gabon)? It's never made clear but it does function well as a study in guilt. And there is more to appreciate here: Alain Marcoen's roaming, hand-held camera hovers in doorways and confined domestic spaces, lending the film its documentary-realist edge and the sombre colour palette of costume, setting and lighting are efficient. But without sufficient substance The Unknown Girl is a overly cold, unmoving slice of life. 


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