The Unknown Girl (2016) – Dardenne Brothers



Adèle Haenel as Jenny, the doctor whose refusal to answer the clinic door one late night after hours leads to the killing of an unknown immigrant prostitute.

Dardenne Brothers take the realism of Haneke, with none of the nihilism. The spiritual crisis seem real because…

The awkward lanky posture of the main character signifies something about her personality.

It matters that the girl who dies was a prostitute. One of the important themes is sexual guilt. The doctor represents the upwardly mobile middle class so her guilt is actually murderous (she believes she indirectly contributed to the killing by refusing to open the clinic door after hours). The prostitute and her john are both lower class, poor people, so their guilt is sexual.

It’s the guilt that drives the narrative, and delays the reveal. The doctor’s real expertise is extracting confessions. It plays on the social idea of the privacy clause between doctor and patient. The viewer is the invisible intruder.

It shows how sexual guilt, or rather, the lack of an expressive shared social vocabulary about sexuality, leads to repression, violence,  silence, and ends in dehumanization and detachment. It dissolves the psyche into an expressive internal rage.

Being a doctor is a cool profession, and we could all aspire to be like doctors, not necessarily practitioners, but to naturally have that openness and willingness to help heal a stranger.

Where Haneke would be Hitchcockian (heighten dramatic tension), the Dardenne Brothers try to capture emotion. The doctor goes through an array of moods, adapting to each event with the disposition of a doctor: attentive and inquisitive. Not unlike the viewer of cinema.

I dig this, because it tries hard to avoid sentimentality and instead conveys directness and clarity. It looks at social ills but suggests that the solution, if there is one, is a perception problem. There is not a fantasy world, a shifting CGI environment, or a romantic attachment to a thing. There is always at least two people, and an exchange of information between them.

When he confesses his murder (accidental) to the doctor,  she coldly instructs him to call the police. Her expression and tone is matter of factly but it doesn’t negate her usual concern for her patients’ well being. Although she is now liberated of murderous guilt, she still attempts to resolve it, and in doing helps an intern obtain a recommendation. The door that she refused to open at the beginning, is now permanently unlocked.


Categories: female leads

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