Monday, October 10, 2016
New York Film Festival 2016: The Unknown Girl
The Unknown Girl plays October 12 and 13 as part of the main slate of the 54th New York Film Festival. Sundance Selects will open the film theatrically in 2017.
An excellent doctor, Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) pays close attention to her patients, treating them with a respectful warmth that puts them at ease. What’s more, she’s unafraid of standing up to disreputable patients who try to bully her into falsifying medical records so they can shirk work. The same skills that make her a good doctor also make her a gifted amateur detective when an African immigrant who had knocked at her clinic door after hours one night turns up dead the next day.
Wracked with guilt for having stopped her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) from answering the door, Jenny sets out to save the woman from the ignominy of burial in an anonymous pauper’s grave, gently but insistently interrogating everyone she can think of who might know something about who the woman was and how she died. Coincidentally (perhaps a bit too coincidentally), most of the main suspects associated with the case are also patients of Jenny’s, and her dual roles as doctor and detective intertwine even more when the upset stomachs, spasming backs and weak hearts she is treating turn out to be caused at least as much by unresolved guilt and anxiety over the case as by any physical injury.
The title of Belgian filmmaker brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s latest film presumably refers to the dead woman, but it may describe the doctor as well. The camera clings to Jenny in most of the scenes, searching her mobile face for the constantly shifting shadings with which Haenel communicates her character’s deep-rooted empathy and distress, but if the young doctor has a private life, we never get so much as a hint of it. She’s on duty 24/7, sleeping at the clinic when she isn’t attending to its low-income patients, and when she has a free moment she uses it to pursue the mystery of the dead woman or track down Julien, who quit on her the day after the woman disappeared, to try to convince him not to give up his dream of becoming a doctor.
Her selfless dedication to helping others makes her less a main character than a trusted guide to yet another Dardenne brothers gallery of beleaguered characters (including Dardenne regulars Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet, both fiercely defiant) who struggle, not always successfully, to maintain their dignity and do the right thing in a world that often makes that next to impossible. As always in the brothers’ movies, that world is short on frills and physical comforts, but it’s also beautiful and full of small graces, especially as seen through the loving eyes of a radical empath like the good doctor Jenny.
Written for Brooklyn Magazine