Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Unknown Girl (La Fille Inconnue)

Directors Jean-Pierre (left) and Luc Dardenne


THE UNKNOWN GIRL (La Fille Inconnue)               B+         
Belgium  France  (113 mi)  2016  d:  Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne

In film after film, the Dardenne brothers provide the gold standard on social realism, using a near documentary format to make spare and cinematically austere films with a social message and moral implications, set exclusively in Liège working class environments, exposing social dilemmas that viewers universally can identify with, revealing the difficult kinds of choices people are forced to make, often risking their economic security to preserve their own humanity, where their insight is usually right on the nose.   While the quality of their films is always high, two time winners of the prestigious Palme d’Or (1st place) award at Cannes, for ROSETTA (1999) and L’ENFANT (THE CHILD) (2005), while also winning The Grand Prix (2nd place) award for The Kid With a Bike (Le gamin au vélo) (2011) and best screenplay for LORNA’S SILENCE (2008), their most recent work included heralded actress Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit)  (2014), yet one detects a kind of indistinguishable similarity in their films, as they are all made exactly the same way.  Speaking personally, what’s been missing are the transcendent moments that elevated both ROSETTA (1999) and LE FILS (THE SON) (2002) to near religious experiences, films that are comparable to the Bressonian template, where the mechanics of rigorous technical precision lead to a spiritual release, like finding a way out of the labyrinth, suddenly freed from all human limitations, discovering salvation in the most improbable places.  This film attempts to do the same, revealing how hard it is to make moral choices in today’s world, as no one else is interested in lending a helping hand.  Like an accident victim stranded on the side of the road, most would prefer to conveniently drive by and not get involved, something that might have been unthinkable 50 years ago, but times and perceptions have changed, literally altering human behavior.     

Born and raised in the industrial Belgian town of Seraing, the French-speaking Walloon municipality in the province of Liège, the setting of literally every single one of their feature films, the Dardenne brothers originally planned to make this film with actress Marion Cotillard, but due to scheduling difficulties made the earlier Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit)  (2014) with her instead, choosing another extraordinary French actress for the role, Adèle Haenel, who was involved in an open relationship with French director Céline Sciamma, meeting on the set of her first feature film WATER LILIES (2006), continuing until the Belgian release of this film in October 2016.  Surprisingly the Dardenne brothers re-edited the film after the initial Cannes release, trimming 7-minutes off the film with 32 new edits, in effect streamlining the film, adding greater fluidity, where the visceral pace is one of the distinguishing features of the film, becoming something of a daunting police procedural carried out by a private citizen, ratcheting up the suspense, evoking an edge-of-your-seat style of thriller.  Haenel plays a young, successful physician, Jenny Davin, taking the place of a retiring doctor in a small, neighborhood family clinic as she prepares for a more prestigious position in a larger medical facility with state of the art equipment and the recipient of huge research grants.  As she examines an elderly patient struggling for breath, she is also providing hands-on instructional training to a young intern, Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), where her uncompromising attention to detail leaves him a bit overwhelmed, feeling she is being overly critical, which makes her even more resolute to be precise.  In response, Julien grows more introverted and aloof, which alarms the doctor.  When he freezes at the sight of a young patient having a seizure in the waiting room, she reprimands him, “A good doctor has to control his emotions.”  Working well past closing time, unable to see any more patients, she instructs him to ignore the ring of the outer door buzzer, reminding him, “Don’t let patients tire you or you won’t make a proper diagnosis.”  The following morning, however, the police arrive at her door requesting to see her security video, as a crime took place across the street, where a young woman’s body was found lying dead on the rocks by the river.  Jenny’s conscience kicks into high gear, remembering the late night buzzer, bringing this to the attention of the authorities, as she’s haunted by the thought that the woman might still be alive had she opened her doors, where the remainder of the film feels driven by the depths of her guilt.  

While the video did not capture the incident, police contend she was a young African prostitute, suggesting the woman’s body showed signs of a struggle, where her head was crushed by a blunt object and then left for dead after the perpetrator fled the scene.  Curious about what happened, Jenny examines the crime scene, having to pass through a construction zone to get there, as it was one of the workers who initially discovered the body.  Rattled to the core, she is apologetic to Julien, overly critical of herself for not checking the door, but unable to ascertain the identity of the woman, she has a photograph made from the security video, placing it in her phone, then showing it to Julien and various patients asking if they know her.  Without explanation, Julien bolts from the office, claiming he’s not coming back, apparently rethinking his career path, where Jenny tries to be as supportive as possible, encouraging him not to make a rash decision, yet he’s obviously been affected by the incident.  Similarly, after consulting with the retiring physician she is replacing, she decides to take up his smaller neighborhood practice instead of the more lucrative offer, even though it caters to a decidedly poorer clientele.  While the rhythm of the film is built on a succession of patient examinations, she routinely makes house calls as well, establishing an alternative storyline that requires travel, so she’s constantly on the move, an action that only accelerates when she adds a series of investigative inquiries to her list of things to do, questioning if people have seen the girl, what do they know and what can they tell her?  Based on the impoverished circles she’s exploring, she heads straight into warning signs, where there are dangerous asides, as she’s investigating people who do not like anyone asking questions.  Getting herself deeper and deeper involved, she assumes more responsibility, where even the police warn her to stay out of their business and eventually give her the cold shoulder.  While some will argue the script is overly contrived, as detective work is never this easy, as everyone she meets seems to have some involvement in the matter, but the quickening pace of the film is extremely affecting, as viewers get caught up in her moral quest, finding a name that belongs to a violated body that was simply tossed aside, like it meant nothing, something the police and society at large are routinely indifferent about, particularly when it comes to immigrants and people of color, yet it is precisely this issue that elevates the tension and creates a compelling drama.  Always psychologically complex, delving into the plight of forgotten or impoverished individuals, the Dardennes succinctly humanize this moral issue in ways others can’t or won’t, making this essential viewing.  

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