Perhaps most consistent and striking across the spare, unflinching filmography of brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is the degree of integrity granted each of their characters. Theirs is a resolutely unsplashy cinema for which it’s enough to simply be human to earn the loyalty of the lens. In The Unknown Girl (La Fille Inconnue), released on September 8, the peripheral characters—a woman working a cash register at a cyber cafe, a school boy playing hooky, a medical resident learning the ropes of a walk-in clinic—are never reduced to stock clichés or forgettable agents present strictly to advance the plot. Rather, their complexity is a given, testing our assumptions at every turn, lending depth to realism beyond the stark urban terrain and lack of conspicuous key lights.
The story is fairly simple: Dr. Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) has been offered a promotion to a prestigious regional health center, but instead opts to play sleuth as regards the “unknown girl” found dead near Davin’s office in downtown Seraing, in Belgium. The film follows “Dr. Jenny” from awkward encounters with locals to menacing coups de grâce with area pariahs, and probes the difference between private and public guilt—the classic “Who is the slayer? Who is the victim?” conundrum Sophocles pondered centuries back.
The Dardennes’ choice to build a narrative around an outspoken, strong-willed female character sans romantic pursuits is itself (sadly) unusual. Aware of The Bechdel Test or not, the Belgian brothers keep churning out movies that pass with flying colors. They have said that “women are the future of man,” and that “[t]he women in our films are characters who feel responsible, who are free, who help move society forward.” As such, Dr. Jenny’s pursuit of justice has nothing to do with snagging a man or (like Marion Cotillard’s character in the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night) being a good mother. Jenny’s more a lone agent of civil righteousness than anything else. In a reverse of the traditional feminist slogan, the public becomes personal.
The following interview was conducted in October 2016. The answers were translated from the original French.
The Rumpus: Did you see The Unknown Girl as in dialogue with Two Days, One Night? Both orbit the ways in which friends, acquaintances, and strangers confide in, trust, or suspect those in their community.
Luc Dardenne: The relationships in Two Days really had nothing to do with this movie. In this particular movie, Dr. Jenny feels guilty for the death of the unknown girl; she’s looking for the name… so that she can rejoin the core of human beings. She attempts to spread that guilt out to all that know the unknown girl, so that everyone can have a share in the responsibility to help identify her. Ultimately, each must accept that each individual has something to do with the death of this girl.
The core of the film is the relationships between these people and at what moment that they’re going to accept the challenge to talk, and actually talk. It’s understandable that they are suspicious in the beginning because what Jenny is really asking is that, in the interest of the girl, they put their self-interest second. Trust can only occur from the moment that you start to feel responsible for somebody else.
Rumpus: The Unknown Girl may be the first film I’ve seen that revels in the day-to-day manual tasks of being a doctor. Was part of your goal to call attention to the less glamorous side of the vocation?
Luc: What we really wanted was that she not fall into only a cop role, and that she stay entrenched in medicine and being a practicing doctor. One medical act of hers that was very important was the very first one depicted—when we have her listening to the breathing of this first patient, what we’re really saying is, Here we have a character that listens. She’s listening to breathing; she’s listening to life.
So, on the one hand, there are these listening acts that are linked to her daily medical practice, and then there are acts linked to the state of society. The ones that are linked to the unknown girl reveal how different citizens’ bodies respond prior to, or after, talking to Jenny. For instance, in the case of her conversation with the young man, she looks into his eyes to see if he recognizes the photo of the unknown girl, and when she puts her fingers on his temple she realizes that his heart rate has jumped and that he knows something.
Rumpus: So much of the tension in your films comes from letting a shot continue uninterrupted.
Luc: A lot of building that tension was intuition. It came about as we were progressing with the film. For instance, when Dr. Jenny hears the buzzer and imagines the unknown African girl each time, that obviously creates suspense. Or, when a character appears in the room unexpectedly from out of the frame during one of her interrogations, there’s surprise there. We’re thinking, what is he going to do?
In all the silences in the long takes, what we’re really doing is waiting for the characters to speak and reveal what they know about the unknown girl. So one of the things that happens is that people come back to talk to Dr. Jenny; with the initial encounters with them, we don’t know if the characters have anything to do with the unknown girl or not. On the other hand, we do know that the café is related to prostitution trafficking, so we know that’s going to be connected, but we don’t know how.
We tried to build the entire film around these small elements of uncertainty.
Rumpus: Dr. Jenny lacks any family or close friends to speak of. Her patients and intern are the only people with whom she regularly interacts. In this way she, too, seemed “unknown,” despite her position of authority as a doctor.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: We did try originally to build a personal and private life for Jenny, but found that it was counterproductive in terms of the film we wanted to make. What we really wanted to show was how Dr. Jenny becomes more and more possessed by the image of the unknown girl, and that it really bites off a big chunk of her life.
That’s why it was important for us to show her turning down a more lucrative, career-oriented position, and also how she decided to live in a space that was above her clinic’s office, which was not really meant to be lived in.
Rumpus: The violence in the film often seems to be lurking offscreen at any moment. It’s not so much overt physical injury but rather violent intimidation. How did you wish to depict violence in this film?
Luc: Just a small thing about Jenny’s private life: it’s the life of the unknown girl that we’re trying to save in the movie, not Jenny’s. As far as the violence perpetrated against her, we always thought of the lead character as being a woman. Not because of the violence, but because that’s how we conceived of her from the get-go. When we wrote the screenplay, we noticed that in the fourth scene, she met up with violence. And we said to ourselves, even if all doctors today can be threatened—for instance, by drug addicts—her being a woman was really symptomatic of what’s going on today where women are constantly subject to threats of violence.
If we had chosen a male doctor as the prime character, we would not have constructed the scenes the way that we did. We’re happy that our film plays witness to what women go through, in terms of violence.
Rumpus: Dr. Jenny tells her intern early in the film not to get emotionally involved in his process of diagnosis, but of course she herself gets very emotionally invested with her investigation. How does the film negotiate the emotional versus the empirical and dispassionate?
Jean-Pierre: She’s right to tell him at the beginning that if he doesn’t keep an emotional distance that he won’t be able to make an appropriate diagnosis. And that’s actually what she’s going to keep doing. It’s true that she’s going to be subjected to a lot of violent shock along the way, but she retains this quality of being a listener. And this listening is going to solicit silences, and eventually bring people to feel guilty about this young girl, and eventually get them to talk.
That’s Jenny. She has great ears. It’s an ear that can think and can also feel.
Rumpus: In the last shot, Dr. Jenny is walking away from us, helping a small elderly woman down a set of stairs, and both have their backs to the camera. We hear their footsteps, which become a kind of diegetic music. How did you come to choose this as the final image?
Jean-Pierre: Well, that old woman with her in the last scene is, in fact, extremely tiny! That scene is meant to show Jenny launching back to her old life as a doctor and feeling relieved—relieved that the name of the unknown girl has been found.
The little lady that she helps down the steps, and bends over to put herself down on her level, is a way of affirming life: life continues. That’s really the message. And by Dr. Jenny bending over and walking slowly so that they can walk in the same pace, it shows that she is in complete empathy. That’s what being a doctor is all about, and what being a human being is about.
Feature image of the Dardenne brothers via Creative Commons.