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Guilt as Madness: An Interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

The directors discuss "The Unknown Girl" and what drives its main character: "She has another person inside her—it’s a kind of psychosis."
Photo by Darren Hughes
The Unknown Girl opens with a handheld close up of Dr. Jenny (Adèle Haenel) examining a patient. “Listen,” she says, handing her stethoscope to Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), a medical student who is interning at her clinic. Never ones to shy away from a glaring metaphor, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne announce in that brief exchange their film’s driving thematic and formal concerns. When Jenny later learns that her decision to not allow a late-night visitor into the clinic might have contributed to the young woman’s death, she puts her skills and training to new purpose: listening for clues that might help solve the murder.
The Unknown Girl differs from the Dardennes’ previous fiction films only in its more obviously generic plotting. This seems to have contributed to the uncharacteristically mixed reviews that greeted the film at its 2016 Cannes premiere, where it was faulted for failing to embrace the conventions of the classic policier. The main character, in particular, has been deemed an unconvincing and unmotivated detective. In fact, like all of the Dardennes’ most compelling heroes—Jérémie Renier’s Igor in La promesse (1996), Olivier Gourmet’s Olivier in The Son (2000), and Thomas Doret’s Cyril in The Kid with a Bike (2011)—Haenel’s Dr. Jenny is first and foremost an object of physical fascination, conventions be damned. Bodies “react before they speak,” the directors told me—a fitting description of their film style, generally, and of The Unknown Girl, specifically.
This interview took place at the offices of Cinetic Media on October 13, 2016, the day after The Unknown Girl had its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival. 

NOTEBOOK: Am I right in remembering that the character Samantha in The Kid with a Bike was originally going to be a doctor?
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: Good. Right.
LUC DARDENNE: That’s exactly how Samantha meets the little boy, in a doctor’s office. Originally, we thought the doctor would save the kid, but we changed it because we thought it might be a little too cliché, because a doctor is meant to save lives. In [The Unknown Girl] we returned to the idea of a doctor, but put her in relation to a death that she feels responsible for.
NOTEBOOK: Is that typical for you? That you have a character in mind and then work to find an appropriate or interesting scenario to drop him or her into?
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: This is the first time. This is our first adventure. We got fixated on the doctor issue and wanted to find a story that we could fit her into. The doctor escaped us the first time, and so we tried to figure out why, find a place for her. But we’ve never done that. And even in the screenplay for this one, it was originally an older doctor, and we couldn’t make it work until we decided on a younger doctor. It was a character who resisted us.
NOTEBOOK: Why does the character work as a young doctor but not an older one?
LUC DARDENNE: The older doctor was not that old, she was about 40, but when we wrote the screenplay with the older doctor in mind, it kept taking us in the direction of a detective story. She was someone who had more life experience. When we saw the younger actress, she looked more candid and naïve. With her, we thought that when she meets people, her candor and naïveté might incite them to talk to her. She might free the truth. It was a gamble.
NOTEBOOK: So you conceived of her as a listener. You’ve said about your early career that one of the pleasures of making documentaries was the opportunity to sit with people, to ask questions, to hear them tell their stories. Is that still a part of your writing process?
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: The short answer is yes. For the kinds of films we make, we have to have our ears open to what is happening in the world, what is happening around us. And we also have to listen to our characters. When we create characters we do not watch them from above. We try to be in tandem with them while they’re going through the experience. Our characters are not puppets that we’re manipulating from above.
NOTEBOOK: The doctor serves a similar function in the film. She’s a witness, and within the context of the film, that is a moral act.
LUC DARDENNE: We constructed this film with a lot of silences, notably when Jenny is doing medical procedures. Bodies exist, you hear them breathe, you hear them make other noises. Even when she simply touches someone’s body, we hear it. We constructed the film knowing that these silences would encourage people to talk, which would advance us toward discovering the identity of the unknown girl. Dr. Jenny is an instrument for revealing the truth. She’s there to be at the birth of the truth. That’s how we saw her, which is why we didn’t invent a private life for her. She’s on a mission.
NOTEBOOK: Making your main character a doctor—someone who observes and listens to bodies as a profession—makes explicit something you’ve done in many of your films, yes?
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: I wouldn’t quite say that. But it’s true that because she’s a doctor, she’s able to move forward [toward solving the mystery] because the bodies she’s dealing with react before they speak. All of the people she meets—either before or after she’s with them—they have a visceral, physical reaction. The bodies talk.
The Unknown Girl
NOTEBOOK: I like that: “bodies react before they speak.” In your films, you seldom use classic formal techniques such as eyeline matches to create a subjective point of view. But I wonder if you achieve another kind of subjectivity by being so attentive to the bodies of your actors.
LUC DARDENNE: That’s correct. Hearing is passive as opposed to looking, which is more active. Jenny, from the first take, is listening to a body. And that’s what we try to do. We film her in profile, not head on. We tried to make it so there was something passive that would create an expectation for something to come into the take—speech or words that don’t always come.
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: That’s why we created all of those silent moments. We take the time to really film the bodies. They’re not pretexts for something more important. They’re it.
NOTEBOOK: One standard critical line on your work is that you brought the techniques of documentary filmmaking to the narrative world. You’re often described as “realists.” But the films are also formally expressive. I’d like to better understand that balance by asking about your collaboration with Igor Gabriel, who has been your production designer on every film since Rosetta [1999].
LUC DARDENNE: We work together from the get-go. We find the initial locations, knowing that they will be modified somewhat with Igor. We often cast at the same time, but we go around with our little handheld camera and film so that we can see how the actors will be able to move around in the locations. And then we say, “It might be good to have a wall right here. Or maybe here we should have a door. And maybe the door should open this way rather than that way.” Then we bring Igor and say, “Come and look at all of this with us.” We look at it from an architectural point of view. We’re not looking yet at color tones or that type of thing.
Igor does come in with his own ideas about the mise en scène, but most of what he creates has to do with our intentions. For example, the clinic is, in fact, a social services office. Outside the doctor’s office there is a wall—the wall you see behind the unknown girl when she’s ringing the buzzer. We didn’t know how we were going to handle it, but we knew it was an important wall for us. All of the accessories—the buzzer, et cetera—all have to be on the side of the door that works for us. So there’s a little bit of handiwork that has to go on there. Or the work site where the unknown girl died? Igor completely built that. Igor dug the hole that Jenny falls into, but we told him exactly where it needed to be because the camera would be coming in from this angle, et cetera.
Igor is a very important partner. We don’t always agree, but that’s a good thing. He likes to come in and create a story in the location that relates to the people who might be living there. But we might say, “No, no. We’d rather have nothing on this wall so that the color is somewhat similar to her doctor’s office.” Because then you’re staying within Jenny’s mental universe, within her guilt.  
Two Days, One Night
NOTEBOOK: That last example is exactly what I was hoping to get at when I described your images as expressive. When I revisited Two Days, One Night (2014) recently, I noticed during the final act that the hospital, the laundromat, and the locker room are all strikingly similar designs. Or, in The Unknown Girl, Jenny goes to buy a cemetery plot, and the yellow accent color on the gray wall behind her matches exactly the yellow in the flowers she’s carrying. I guess my question is, why is that important? What does a designed image like that offer a viewer that strict “realism” can’t?
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: In that case it was kind of haphazard. In all public buildings they use the same colors, a kind of yellow. We had flowers that Igor had found, but we saw at the cemetery that there were some nicer ones—that were luminous. We wanted Jenny to be making a larger gesture.
NOTEBOOK: But I’m curious about the effects of those small design choices. As another example, you’ve said before in interviews that you spend a great deal of time choosing the wardrobe of each character. Eventually, though, your main characters always end up wearing plain blue, purple, or red shirts, with slight variations. As a viewer, I’m moved deeply by the sight of Cyril’s red shirt in The Kid with a Bike.
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: It’s only afterwards, when we’re looking at the rough cut, that we notice the effect that some of the colors have. For example, with Cyril and Jenny, it isolates the character. Jenny’s bulky coat has a pattern on it, almost like bars. But only when the movie is finished do we see the strength of the colors or patterns.
NOTEBOOK: I asked Philippe Garrel about the blue and red walls in his film A Burning Hot Summer, and he said he’d learned the power of primary colors from Raoul Coutard and Godard. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but I think you do something similar.
LUC DARDENNE: I’m trying to think of what we say when we’re in the middle of the work process, what we say to the costume designer, the set designer. [pause] What pushes us to those choices? [pause] Of course, we’re the products of the films we’ve seen. The choice of the costumes takes a lot of time because during the rehearsal process the actors try on a lot of different clothes, we try all kinds of things. The thing that really obsesses us? The faces of the actors. The clothes they wear, we don’t want them to look as if they’ve been costume designed.
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: It’s true. [pause] We do try to pick primary colors. We liked to see Jenny dressed in blue and burgundy—simple, basic things that didn’t overpower her face.
LUC DARDENNE: And that also give her a certain softness. Because you know Adèle. In other movies she is really strong and aggressive. So here we said, “Easy. You need to pull back.” We felt that blue and burgundy made her hospitable to the patients. It attracted them rather than repelled.
NOTEBOOK: This is an odd thing to notice, I know, but in several scenes, her shirt has a wide neckline, and because you shoot her in profile, we see more of the soft line of her shoulder and neck. It’s like the tank tops Marion Cotillard and Cécile De France wear in the previous two films.
LUC DARDENNE: Yes. You’re right. We really liked seeing the softer image of her neck.
NOTEBOOK: One of my favorite scenes in your films is when Cyril hugs Samantha in The Kid with a Bike and says, “It’s warm, your breath.”
LUC DARDENNE: Ah, yes.
NOTEBOOK: It’s one of the many beautiful embraces in your work. They’re often moments of epiphany. The Unknown Girl also ends with another unexpected embrace.
JEAN-PIERRE DARDENNE: When Jenny hugs the sister, first of all she doesn’t do it without asking. We saw two things there that cross each other. The first is that this young woman allowed Jenny to complete her mission. Now, the unknown girl, even though she is dead she has a name. The second is that this woman, the sister, went all the way. She admitted everything, as far as she could go. Not only did she give Jenny the name, she also admitted it was because of “my guy” and then went even further and said, “I’m the one who’s responsible. It was because of me—because I was jealous.” The woman is transformed by admitting this. She is finally free.
NOTEBOOK: That brings us back to the idea of listening as a moral act. Jenny seeks advice from two older doctors and they both attempt to assuage her guilt with legalistic responses. Those scenes make for an interesting contrast with all of the conversations in Two Days, One Night, when Sandra’s colleagues repeatedly ask her, “How many votes do you have? How is everyone else voting?” Their morality is fluid and under the influence of social pressure. You’ve said Jenny is motivated by “not a supernatural possession but a moral possession.” How would you describe the moral framework that drives her?
LUC DARDENNE: Speaking from a legal point of view, Dr. Riga is correct. “You can’t be convicted for this, so you should continue along the rising path of your career. Come work for us.” We prefer Dr. Habran’s point of view. “You should have opened the door. You can’t be convicted, but if you had opened the door, she wouldn’t be dead. Ultimately you are responsible.” What interested us was how the wheel could begin turning for her, where she tries to repair what she did, and in order to repair that she has to find the name of the girl. It’s a fiction. Reality is different. Here, it seems that Jenny’s guilt is almost a kind of madness. The unknown girl has gotten into her head. She has another person inside her—it’s a kind of psychosis.
NOTEBOOK: The implication is that we should all suffer a similar moral psychosis.
LUC DARDENNE: Exactly. That is our hope. If the unknown girl can travel between Jenny and the people she meets and talks to, then she can travel to the audience’s mind as well. Jenny is all of us.
Thanks for this great interview.

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