The Dardennes, the Belgian brothers and directors, have finally gone full genre. Well, in so far as the two-time Palme d'Or winners, famous for their scrupulously social realist dramas made after a less-known career in documentaries, desire to torque their liberal politics, masterfully unshowy style, and often stunning denouements of spiritual redemption into a film that follows mainstream conventions. L’enfant (2005) began this subtle evolution, telling the story of a father looking for his child as if it were a thriller. The Kid with the Bike (2011), somewhat controversially for these filmmakers who famously work with non-professionals or unknowns, added a French star to the cast (Cécile de France), while their last movie doubled down on that artifice by not only putting Marion Cotillard in the lead of Two Days, One Night (2014), but wrote that film in such a structured, fatalist manner ask to nearly resemble a film by Fritz Lang.
Which brings us to The Unknown Girl, whose name alone hints at a detective tale to-be. And indeed it is: when Dr. Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) decides not to answer her clinic’s buzzer after closing one night, a young African woman is found dead, and, wracked with guilt, Davin starts her own investigation not to solve the crime, but to give the woman a name so that her family may find her grave. This lonely, compassionate, but single-minded young doctor uses her network of patients—who all clearly love her (one even composes a song of dedication) and who she often visits or helps on house calls and after hours—to find out what happened to the victim and to identify her, put a name to the ghostly image seen in her CCTV footage. Davin goes from person to person in a subtly abject and masochistic process similar to Cotillard’s humiliating interviews to retain her job in Two Days, One Night, here atoning for her mistake through a relentless, symbolic quest to address her own—and our own, implicitly—indifference to the plight of immigrants in her society.
To underscore that while fundamentally based in the social facts of contemporary Belgium's city of Liège—the Dardennes consistent founding of their dramas in the details of social spaces and milieu of the working class—The Unknown Girl is an obviously constructed tale, the filmmakers' regular actors Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet show up during Jenny’s search, standing out in their recognizability as immediate suspects to the crime. It becomes clear, as it did in Two Days, One Night, that this story is jury-rigged to make a point: a white, middle-class guilt over the marginalization and brutalization of immigrants must be atoned for through obstinate and in fact unlawful investigation, coupled with community confrontation and healing.
Putting aside the vague, perhaps dangerous generalization of the film’s literal allegory, where its conventional storytelling is really problematic is in the completely flat tone of Davin's grief and pursuit. Her journey nearly feels as quotidian as a normal day in her clinic, partially due to actress Adèle Haenel's sympathetic but introverted, one-note fixation, partially to her character's moral immaculateness, and partially due to a filmmaking style now so consummately expert that it's hardly noticeable that nearly every scene is done in one subtly changing shot. The resulting film is professionally made and sometimes quite moving, never more so than when Davin confesses to a man and to herself that the dead continue to live if you can't get them out of your head. But for a film about someone so driven by guilt as to go outside the law for absolution, it is a film underpowered, hitting the required marks, showing an average person, an average guilt, an average story. And perhaps this, too, is a point of the film. But these emotions demand urgency, and the idea a fiercely inquisitive dynamism, both crucially missing from The Unknown Girl. It’s as if the film has accepted the least interesting side of genre—the predictability—without embracing what makes its conventions so thrilling to watch again and again: the electric play, in form and story, with what the audience expects.