NYFF Film Review: ‘The Unknown Girl’ Is Another Compelling Dardenne Outing

2016 New York Film Festival: If you’re familiar at all with the work of filmmakers Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, you should know exactly what you’re getting here. “The Unknown Girl” is another dramatic outing of theirs, one that’s as consistently compelling as any of their movies. Now, it’s not quite on the level of “Two Days, One Night,” but it’s still strong work for sure. Excellent acting, a steady emotional core, and a really satisfying ending help to make this a success. The Dardenne Brothers know how to make effective cinema, with this being no exception.

“The Unknown Girl” has a strong message and a solid starting point, so any issues with the film come during the second and third acts, minus the ending. The Dardenne Brothers follow a very linear path here, one that never seems in doubt. Still, it’s a credit to them that the film never bores. Much like Marion Cotillard in “Two Days, One Night,” there’s a central performance that holds it all together. The Dardennes take that, sew it with their steady hands, and craft a final product that never seems manipulative, even when it is.

A mystery of sorts, we open by observing Dr. Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) at the low-income clinic where she works. When someone rings their buzzer after hours, she instructs her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) not to open the door. It’s not done out of malice, as we see she’s a caring and attentive doctor, but it will come to haunt her. The next day, police come and inform her that a young woman was killed that night, and it turns out that she buzzed looking for a potentially save haven. This haunts Jenny and spurs her not only to deny a better job with upper class patients, but to also become a bit of a sleuth. It becomes a quest for Jenny to learn the name of the girl in order to inform her family.

unknowngirl_06One of the main reasons that “The Unknown Girl” works is the lead performance given by Haenel. She does so much without ever going big that you just study her the whole time. Haenel has a moral compass that infuses the entire film, no matter what she’s doing. She’s at her best in the doctor sequences, though she makes an effective detective of sorts as well. She’s the clear high point, though the aforementioned Bonnaud is solid enough as well. Supporting players include Christelle Cornil, Louka Minnelli, Jérémie Renier and more. Still, it’s really all about Haenel here, as she’s the heart and soul of the picture without question.

The Dardennes keep their style steady here, though you could argue that their writing is a step down from their direction. What you see is what you get with “The Unknown Girl,” as nothing is ever really taken down an unexpected avenue. The story is solid enough to work, but it’s never tweaked in any unique or auteurist way. This isn’t a huge issue, but it just prevents a good film from being a great one. There’s never much suspense. It’s not completely needed, but there’s the sense that the filmmakers think they’re making more of a mystery than they actually are.

Overall, “The Unknown Girl” is more than satisfying enough as a human drama. It’s actually probably the best thing I’ve seen so far at the festival. Haenel’s performance helps to set this one apart at NYFF, though current fans of the Dardenne brothers will appreciate this as well. It’s easy to recommend to them, but anyone who likes morality tales and human dramas should find much to like. Though just shy of being great, “The Unknown Girl” is very good and well worth making an effort to see.

“The Unknown Girl” will screen at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 12.

GRADE: (★★★)