Director: Luc Dardenne, Jean-Pierre Dardenne
Cast: Adèle Haenel, Olivier Bonnaud, Jérémie Renier, Louka Minnella
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When your batting average is so high, it can be the case that the slightest dip in quality is overstated as something far more troubling than it actually is. This was seemingly the case with the Dardenne brothers at this year’s Cannes, where their latest film, The Unknown Girl, received a considerably more lukewarm response than the likes of Two Days, One Night and The Kid with a Bike, with some suggestions that the Belgian duo had finally reached a stage of auto-pilot writing and directing and others implying that the new film was their first outright failure. It’s since been re-edited post-Cannes, and this is the cut that’s making its way to cinemas and streaming.
So does The Unknown Girl, in this form, constitute an actual outright failure for the fine filmmakers? Short answer: no. However, there’s the less severe question as to whether it does still constitute something below par in relation to their back catalogue. And the answer to that question is yes. But when you’re responsible for some of the best dramas to come out of mainland Europe in the last decade, and your new film happens to be just merely decent, that’s hardly a cause for calls of crisis.
The Unknown Girl offers one of the most notable deviations from the traditional Dardennes formula. Many of their films have had flirtations with more genre-inclined filmmaking (The Son, for one, veers into thriller territory), but The Unknown Girl is an outright murder mystery. The brothers’ tried and true trade concerns probing the internal and external machinations of their protagonists’ lives, but here, we have the first instance in one of their films of plot taking centre stage over people.
The aesthetic is very much in line with the directors’ social realist tendencies, but applied to a neo-noir framework. These are by no means incompatible sensibilities, in terms of form, but it is with the script that there is some faltering. The initial circumstance and specifics of the murder mystery at its centre present a considerably difficult case to crack, but then the story starts to run on too many convenient coincidences. The thematic nature of it, best left unspoiled, belongs to a bigger world than the ultimately confined one of the film.
The Dardennes’ films thrive on intimacy when it comes to exploring single characters, but the story they’ve devised here could have benefited from some branching out; deviating from relegating nearly all the developments to a too-small ensemble of supporting players. It is with the story’s central player, though, that the film is still worthy of recommendation. As a doctor raddled with guilt and self-loathing regarding her unknowing part in an unexplained local death, rising star Adèle Haenel continues her streak of excellent performances, with a rigorous demeanour to her growing obsession that brings to mind certain Hitchcock leads, specifically James Stewart’s pair of overly nosy protagonists in Rear Window and Vertigo. If the directors are overall off their game a bit, at least their reliability with getting strong lead performances hasn’t faltered.
The Unknown Girl is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £9.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription – with a 14-day free trial.
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