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The Dardenne Brothers’ Guilty Conscience

“The Unknown Girl” examines a middle-class liberal’s dilemma.

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

The Unknown Girl, the new film by the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is a peculiar whodunit. The film is more interested in the victim’s identity than the killer’s, and it’s not the authorities who search for the answers but a bystander to the crime—that is, if what caused the death was even a crime and not an accident. The investigations skirt decaying industrial zones around the river and the highway in Liège, a Belgian city adjacent to Seraing, the Dardennes’ hometown and the setting for most of their films. There are construction sites, dusty fenced-in clearings, and dismal apartment blocks. We meet drug addicts, desperate immigrants, and criminal elements. The film fuses the roving vision of postindustrial precarity that defined the Dardenne brothers’ last two features, Two Days, One Night (2014) and The Kid With a Bike (2012), with the noirish turns of Lorna’s Silence (2009) and L’Enfant (2005), which depict a vicious world closing in on itself. To complicate matters, at the film’s center the Dardennes place an amateur detective who doesn’t naturally belong to this parlous world.

The mystery begins with a typical Dardenne moment: a casual act that turns out to bear a heavy moral weight. Dr. Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) is a young physician about to leave her post at a small practice in a working-class district. Her boss is retiring, and she has found a better-paid position at a tonier medical outfit across town. One night, as she and her intern, Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), are finishing up at the office, someone buzzes at the door. Jenny tells Julien not to answer it. They’ve already stayed an hour late, and their patients should know better than to bother them after hours. Julien departs a few minutes later in a state of agitation. Jenny leaves for a party at her new practice. Julien never returns to work, and will tell Jenny that he’s returning to his home village, giving up medicine after five years of study. The next morning, Jenny is met by a pair of detectives (Ben Hamidou and Laurent Caron) asking to see her office’s surveillance video from the night before. The person buzzing at the door was a teenage girl who’s been found dead at a construction site by the river. No one has any idea who she is.

Jenny blames herself for the girl’s death. The surveillance footage shows that she was desperate, seemingly trying to escape from someone, probably the person who killed her. Jenny’s guilt is intensified by loosely connected feelings of class guilt—the fact that she was hurrying to leave her patients for a swishier gig and a party in her honor at her fancy new office. She gives up her new post and instead takes over her old boss’s practice, resigning herself to a lower income and to living in the modest accommodations attached to her office. She’ll go on spending her evenings making house calls and writing methadone prescriptions, never not answering the buzzer or the phone.

Making her rounds, Jenny asks her patients if they know the dead girl. She becomes the conscience of this patchwork community, and as such she’s no longer an entirely welcome presence. Her patients want her to stop asking questions. A boy named Bryan (Louka Minnella) admits that he saw the girl fellating an old man in a camper parked in a vacant lot. But thinking about the case gives him crippling indigestion, and his father (Jérémie Renier) suffers back pain that requires a morphine injection. The questions are making them sick. When she gets too close to the pimps the girl was working for, they threaten her. Even the detectives want her to knock it off: She’s alienating informants they need in an ongoing drug case. Anyone who might know something has reason to want the death to go unexplained.

One criticism that’s been voiced about the Dardennes’ earlier films is the absence of characters like the filmmakers themselves. “The Dardenne brothers capture a significant swath of humanity in their films,” Richard Brody wrote of Lorna’s Silence, “but nobody who resembles the Dardenne brothers.” Although they grew up in Seraing and spent their early careers making documentaries about the region and its withering manufacturing industry, as internationally successful filmmakers they now partake of a life far away from their desperate characters. Before The Unknown Girl, the Dardennes looked in on a world in which they had roots, but floated above it as sympathetic observers, with two Palmes d’Or from Cannes to their names.

Haenel’s doctor is the first Dardenne heroine who shares their distance from the community she works in. Her nice clothes, her highlighted hair, the fact that she’s in good health and not scarred by a lingering trauma set her apart from just about everyone else in The Unknown Girl. Only the colleagues at the upscale consultancy she abandons remotely resemble her. Perhaps for this reason, however, Haenel’s performance attracted criticism at Cannes in 2016—after which the Dardennes went back to the editing room to cut a new version, seven minutes shorter than the one they premiered. In The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw called the movie “passionless,” citing Haenel’s “bafflingly inert performance.” Her “usual spark,” he complained, appeared “to be doused by self-consciousness.”

But this self-consciousness is the source of The Unknown Girl’s animating tension. Jenny’s uneasiness—a new if unstable element in the Dardennes’ films—reflects their own preoccupation with the consequences of their success and status. What does it take for someone who doesn’t share in a precarious reality to understand a life shaped by it? Jenny is the guilty middle-class liberal on a mission of pity among the impoverished. Yes, she may be in over her head, but she is also sacrificing material wealth and comfort, and putting her own life at risk.

Jenny is beloved by some of her patients—one boy with cancer plays guitar and sings her a song of gratitude, with a hint of a teenage crush—but others come to her for phony prescriptions and become physically menacing when she turns them down. We don’t know anything of her life outside her work: no romantic interests, friends, or family. We don’t see her eat much besides the waffles and cakes her patients give her as gifts. “A good doctor has to control his emotions,” she tells Julien. If increasingly obsessed with the dead girl, she’s also self-possessed. It’s this apparent coldness that sets her off drastically from Sandra, the heroine of the Dardennes’ last feature, Two Days, One Night, played by Marion Cotillard, who earned an Oscar nomination for her overheated performance of helplessness.

Two Days, One Night was a startlingly direct essay on the indignities of neoliberalism from the perspective of one of its victims. Sandra has been away from work at a solar panel factory because of depression, and now that she’s ready to come back, management has put her position to a vote among the staff. They can elect to let her keep her job, or to receive a bonus of 1,000 euros each. As Sandra travels across Seraing petitioning her co-workers for her livelihood (she’s married with a couple of kids, and losing her job will force the family out of their home and back into social housing), Cotillard is jittery, constantly on the verge of tears. In her quest for self-preservation, she’s on edge. The performance is at times overwrought, even hammy. It’s a stark contrast to Haenel’s steeliness, which is no less interesting, if less obviously Oscar bait.

There have been resilient, even stoic, heroines in the Dardennes’ earlier films, but they haven’t been middle-class interlopers like Haenel’s character. Her performance recalls Arta Dobroshi’s in Lorna’s Silence, the best of the Dardennes’ movies of the past decade. Dobroshi’s Lorna is an Albanian immigrant caught up in a multitiered citizenship-through-marriage scheme that leaves her first husband (Jérémie Renier), a recovering junkie, dead, despite her efforts to save him. She becomes convinced, against the word of doctors, that she’s carrying the dead man’s child, which muddies the arrangements for her next marriage, to a Russian paying a premium to take advantage of her newfound Belgian citizenship, and puts her on the wrong side of the gangsters who set up the deal. Like Jenny, Lorna finds herself trapped between failing, overgrown boys and predatory men.

Renier, who began working with the Dardennes as a teenager in The Promise (1996), reappears throughout their later films as a broken father (or would-be father in Lorna’s Silence). In L’Enfant, he sells his child, buys the baby back, but winds up in jail. In The Kid With a Bike, he abandons his son, Cyril, leading to the boy’s adoption by Samantha, a hairdresser willing to upend her own life for a stranger’s trouble-making child. Renier’s performance in The Unknown Girl is as edgy as any of these, if in a smaller role. He’s the film’s radioactive particle.

There are scenes in The Kid With a Bike and Lorna’s Silence of greater intensity than anything in The Unknown Girl: Lorna taking her husband to bed to prevent him from relapsing; Lorna escaping a gangster who’s about to kill her; Samantha wrestling Cyril when he decides to go out after dark to help a local thug. In The Unknown Girl, Jenny is tossed into a deep construction ditch by Bryan, in a scene that underlines the futility of her detective work with an absurdity that’s almost comic. When she does discover the girl’s identity and the circumstances of her death, the Dardennes refuse a pat resolution. One of the strangest aspects of their work is their combination of sweeping plot twists and endings that leave the door open to both hopeful and hopeless futures. We last see Jenny ushering an old woman with a cane down the stairs into the examination room. If Jenny is a stand-in for the Dardennes, she, like the filmmakers, has learned that the best she can do is go on with her work.