“A good doctor controls their emotions in order to make a correct diagnosis.” This is the advice that young medic Jenny Davin tries to impress upon her intern Julien in the opening scenes of The Unknown Girl. Yet it is her barely suppressed emotions that drive Jenny into the obsessive mission at the heart of this captivating film.
Jenny and Julien are working at a low-budget medical centre in the Belgian city of Liege where they treat the area’s impoverished residents. The day’s surgery has overrun and Julien is not taking Jenny’s criticisms well. When the entry buzzer rings, Jenny instructs Julien not to answer. The following day she finds out that the late night caller was a young woman who has been found dead.
Driven by guilt that she could have saved the woman, Jenny turns down a lucrative new job and sets out to discover the woman’s identity and to investigate the circumstances of her death.
Medical practice inevitably involves a degree of detection — and Jenny seeks the causes of this woman’s death with the same meticulous care that she treats her patients with. Through her house calls, she has several opportunities to question potential witnesses and to draw her patients and their families into her quest for the truth.
Aside from the main plot, there are some lovely scenes of Jenny’s interaction with her patients, including a surprising musical tribute. There is also a fascinating side story about Julien’s dilemmas about his future in medicine.
The film contains much of the social realism for which the directors are well known, but this is mixed with more than a hint of film noir and some classic sleuth drama. Jenny strikes a lonely figure — we see no human context, no family, no friends. She drives around the city alone, often at night, occasionally putting herself in danger. She is so absorbed by her quest that she starts sleeping in the surgery, ever alert to the buzzer that she had refused to answer — but which now heralds a stream of visitors with revelations about the mystery woman’s last few hours.
Jenny is played with great intensity by Adele Haenel. Haenel has been criticised for giving an impassive performance. But understated is not the same as impassive — and while many of the male characters become overwrought and fall to pieces, not so Haenel’s ever-focused Jenny.
The Dardenne brothers have directed several films that follow the story of a central female lead, and if the Unknown Girl maybe doesn’t live up to the brilliance of their last film Two Days, One Night, it is nonetheless an intriguing, compelling and enjoyable film.