Maybe it begins as an attempt by a doctor to expunge her guilt over not allowing a girl in danger into the medical practice where she is filling in. But as Jenny (the impressive and understated Adèle Haenel) is pulled into the orbit of The Unknown Girl (La fille inconnue, the only Dardenne brothers film streaming on Netflix!), we are pulled into the orbit of her life. She is the planet, and the other characters become the moons drawing near and receding again.
Her guilt—not only about the death of the girl, but about her harshness with the intern, Julien—initiates and pushes the story along, but by the end she is the one to whom everyone else confesses his or her complicity. She is not the tenacious and assertive force of some other characters who might try to solve some case outside of the police’s work. Her assurance, though subtle, is insistent. As she tells Bryan’s father (the Dardenne regular, Jérémie Renier), she can’t get the girl out of her head either. And if neither of them can get her out of their heads, then she isn’t dead. Buried in an unmarked grave, she still calls to them to do what is right.
In some ways, The Unknown Girl reminds me of another Dardenne film, Two Days, One Night with Marion Cotillard (whom they initially intended to play Jenny’s part). In Two Days, One Night, Cotillard’s character, Sandra, is forced to pursue her own livelihood unrelentingly, visiting many people as she tries to convince them to give up their bonuses in order for her to save her job. Jenny isn’t as frantic, but she is just as unrelenting.
And it’s a vocational obsession. She takes over the practice of her mentor, rather than moving to a better-paying, more “important” job. Quite clearly we see that her nameplate has replaced Dr. Habran’s. It is her dedication to her patients that drives her, maybe even more than her guilt. Bryan, Bryan’s father, and the unknown girl’s sister all end up telling her (more or less) the whole story of their involvement in the girl’s death. And she is their confessor, because she is their doctor. She is the pure one, who refuses to break confidence but continues to fight for Félicie (as we finally learn the unknown girl’s name).
And then, as abruptly as we are pulled into Jenny’s orbit, we are spun out again. The Dardennes force us to consider the immediate questions, such as what we might do in a similar situation. But we are also brought along with Jenny, as we reflect on our own work and the small parts we might play in the far broader drama of life.
Though the themes of the Dardennes’ other films are not far away (alienation, poverty, helplessness, social structure), this film connected the most immediately and personally with me. The more I think about it, the more impressed I am with how real their worlds feel. Nothing here (or in their other films) feels like a film set. The lack of a musical score and the many hand-held shots keep us from being pulled out of the world of the film. Their realism is exuded, rather than contrived.
As with The Kid with a Bike, The Unknown Girl is imbued with a genuine—though nameless—Christianity. And the Dardennes appear to do it with an effortlessness that puts nominally “Christian” films to shame.