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The Unknown Girl (2017) Review

The Unknown Girl is 2016 (2017 USA release) crime/mystery about a woman who gets obsessed with the case of a dead girl after learning that she had died shortly after having rung her door for help.

We live with the choices we make. That’s just life, even if some of them can be devastating. How often have you wished you’d done something differently or had known just a little bit more before taking the direction you did? Such is the very heart of Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne‘s powerful personal drama The Unknown Girl (La fille inconnue), a gripping if slightly flawed film that might not reach its potential but is nonetheless a truly moving experience.

Young doctor Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) works tirelessly at a local free clinic, determined and professional, pushing her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) to be a better physician, he still unsure if he’s equipped for the lifestyle. She, however, is soon to accept a prestigious position at a hospital and is already thinking with one foot out the door. As a long day comes to an end though, and the doors are already locked, they hear the outside buzzer. Julien jumps to let whomever is calling in, however, without even looking to see who it is, Jenny tells him to leave it, that they cannot let patients control their lives. After all, if it were an emergency, they would have rang twice. It’s a decision that will change everything. A young immigrant woman is later found dead from severe head trauma and security footage shows it was her who rang the bell. Overcome with guilt, Jenny makes it her mission to keep her first job and discover who the girl was and why she died.

One of the more intriguing aspects of The Unknown Girl, a French language, dialogue-driven film, is its harrowing authenticity. Despite its sometimes plodding pace, the Dardenne’s do best in giving the movie a great sense of place as the mystery of the dead girl’s past unfolds. Jenny becomes a kind of private investigator as she inquires about the neighborhood and among patients in her attempts to piece it all together, learning perhaps too much as those who want her identity secret close in. This is all done sort of like a documentary with nary a note of music and a single camera following her every move. It’s sometimes unnerving even as it leaves little for our own sense of discovery, having nearly every stone she overturns offer proper clues.

No matter the pace and plotting, the film itself excels on the performance of Haenel, who is in nearly every frame. She’s creates a genuinely sincere and human character out of Jenny, avoiding many of the tropes the genre might offer. She isn’t an action hero and isn’t without some dings in the armor, making her more compelling than the mystery she is trying to solve. Credit further goes to the Dardenne’s direction as well, who put together several key unbroken long-takes that are very effective.

The Unknown Girl is not a typical murder-mystery, a film much more interested in the investigator than the case, and as such, succeeds as a character study of an intrepid doctor more than a taut thriller. It lacks the pendulous emotional swings such an admittedly dark story deserves, and it rarely holds tension as tightly as it should, however, it is another stepping stone for Haenel who is destined for greater roles, she a raw talent that seems fearless and capable of far more. Well worth a look, if only for what she does.

The Unknown Girl (2017) Review

Director(s): Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Actor(s): Adèle Haenel, Olivier Bonnaud, Jérémie Renier

Genre: Mystery

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