The Unknown Girl (2016)

The Dardennes brothers’ The Unknown Girl is a bleak examination of guilt and personal responsibility.

A Doctor Calls

by Alexa Dalby

The Unknown Girl

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Set in a bleak, working-class area of a Belgian town, a caring, overworked young doctor decides not to answer the ringing at her doorbell late one evening hours after her surgery has closed for the day. The next day, the police call on her. Identified on CCTV, the desperate young African woman who rang the bell has been found dead in the desolate nearby docks, but with no ID and no phone. Distressed and overcome with guilt, which leads her to turn down a prestigious new job and continue with her practice, Dr Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) finds she can’t rest until the unknown girl is identified and her family told. To the irritation of the police, she turns detective, showing the girl’s picture to her patients and following up leads that put her in a kind of danger she has not experienced before.

The Dardennes’ brothers latest, The Unknown Girl, is another naturalistic fable like Two Days, One Night. Echoing somewhat the plot of JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, through Dr Davin’s quest it explores the web of hidden interrelationships that leach out from the death of a young woman who at first seems not to be connected to anyone. And it asks how far are we connected to one another in society and what personal responsibility do we have for others?

Davin is kind, unselfish and loved by many of her disadvantaged patients. There are touching scenes of gratitude as she tends wounds, shares coffee and receives the present of a panettone. Yet she unleashes unexpected violence and hostility as she tries to uncover the truth. In parallel with this, her firm but fair relationship with her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) shows the disarming honesty with which she criticises herself and relates to others.

The drama starts with the ringing of a doorbell, and the film is punctuated by the doorbell ringing. There is a succession of genuine patients arriving but also others, more psychologically complex people, who are hiding the secrets of their involvement in what happened. Shot in bleached-out blues and greys in an overcast, sombre landscape that never seems to lighten, the tone is melancholy, low key yet also as suspenseful and compelling as a whodunnit.

The Unknown Girl premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, was released on 2 December 2016 in the UK and is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 6 February 2017.

Join the discussion