Film review | The Unknown Girl: All about the girl(s)

Your friendly neighbourhood film critic is currently in Rome, sampling the cinematic delights of the Eternal City – here’s hoping some of these gems make their way down to our shores • 3/5

Out of sight, never out of mind: Jenny (Adele Haenel) is a guilt-ridden young doctor in the Cannes-premiered new feature by Belgium’s Dardenne brothers
Out of sight, never out of mind: Jenny (Adele Haenel) is a guilt-ridden young doctor in the Cannes-premiered new feature by Belgium’s Dardenne brothers

This time, I’m alerted to the fact that there will be no intermission very clearly: with a plaque announcing the fact in the lobby of the Nuovo Sacher (, surrounded by beautiful film posters and a bar from which an old lady emerges with a slice of the titular ‘Sachertorte’ in hand – almost a citation in and of itself.

“Let’s carry on doing ourselves some harm, shall we?”, Nanni Moretti espouses in his own film Bianca (1984), in shocked response to a fellow diner’s ignorance of the exact same chocolate cake... the Italian director also being a co-owner of the exact same cinema since 1991, along with his production company Sacher Film.

And so, there will be no interruptions for The Unknown Girl – a Cannes-premiered production from the celebrated Belgian sibling duo the Dardenne brothers – a film which anyway does not interrupt the insistent gaze it fixes on its protagonist, a young and energetic doctor from Liegi, Jenny (Adele Haenel). The camera appears magnetically attached to her, like the necessary and inevitable spirit of remorse, which in fact colours her ethical and emotional trajectory throughout this 113-minute feature. 

It is almost as though Jenny doesn’t want us to avert our eyes from her guilt... but it’s a guilt that’s shared. “Don’t look at me!” another character will in fact tell her later on, in a scene that the directors may as well have cut, along with the seven minutes they originally excised in response to criticism following The Unknown Girl’s lukewarm Cannes debut. However, this fairly useless scene – the details of which I will of course not spoil – still does its job to put forward the sense of a shared responsibility, one that is rejected in the interest of maintaing the status quo, however miserable it may be. And against the backdrop of Liegi, a city that is opaque by day and imperceptible by night – a perspective that brings to mind the crucial myopia of the young boy in Gianfranco Rosi’s Fuocoammare (which tackles the immigration crisis directly where the Dardennes take a more allegorical route), indifference reigns in response to individuals who feel remote to us. So much so, that the corpses they leave behind appear bereft of any trace, even a name. 

In fact, the city is like a ‘dry Mediterranean’, in which men and women on the ‘clandestine’ side of the geographical and social spectrum are drowned, and with them drowns the humanity and dignity of those who stay behind and do their best to remain mere spectators, if not worse.

But Jenny refuses to adhere to the marked ‘omerta’ of the rest of her community, and wants to give a name to the woman whom she refused entry an hour after closing time (paradoxically, a refusal that comes about not for lack of professionalism but due to an excessive show of authority in front of a young trainee). She does not want for this woman to simply remain a series of images on a CCTV camera, an image she then copies onto her mobile phone to begin an obsessive search of her own, after the police inform her that the girl died that same night, just a few metres away from the clinic. The frenetic course of events that follows – as Jenny endevours to take the investigation into her own hands – is limited to “only” discovering the name of this poor girl, and takes our protagonist beyond the walls of her clinic and into the houses of her patients and the confines of other erstwhile informants – who are always protected by these same limits, and other codes of silence. 

Then there’s the sound of the intercom – with all subsequent sounds recalling that fateful first one which wasn’t heeded – and which violently interrupt any sense of calm or, in fact, status quo. It is Jenny now who sets about creating her own disruptions in homes, internet cafes and trailer parks – forcing her reluctant interviewees to look at the picture of the scared young girl whom they insist they do not recognise. 

And just as the Dardennes refuse to indulge in long shots – preferring mid-shots or claustrophobic close-ups – neither do they allow expansive dialogue among ensembles, instead opting for clipped conversations among two, or at most three, characters at any given time. It is always Jenny who is the intermediary in these exchanges... both balancing and overstepping the limits of work and investigation, draped in what becomes a signature lined coat – the costume that the Dardennes choose for their superheroine of sorts.