Why would I ruin my life?
Because she’s asking us to.
The newest film from the Dardenne brothers opens with a very small act of callousness. A young woman arrives after hours at an inner-city clinic and attempts to gain entry, but the weary doctor who runs the clinic has had a long day and she ignores the young woman’s ringing of the bell. The following morning, the doctor discovers that sometime after the girl came to the clinic, she was violently murdered. The doctor values clinical detachment from the cases she treats, but now she finds her carefully constructed air of emotional distance challenged as she finds herself haunted by the knowledge that she might have saved the young girl’s life. This film boasts a really strong central performance from Adele Haenel as the main character; the doctor has to go through a really large range of emotions as we watch her character change over the course of the film and Haenel gets them all right with a performance that still feels very minimal and very naturalistic. The film is not really a thriller, more of a slowly paced character study; it’s very effective at this, but toward the end, when the film does try to go fully into mystery solving mode, it stumbles. I was expecting this movie to have one of those bleak, arthouse-type endings where we never really solve the mystery and it’s symbolic of how life is a mystery that we can’t solve, etc. etc., but the movie decides to instead go for a revelation of everything about the crime and who the dead girl was and it feels extremely contrived and forced. I think a more ambiguous ending would have worked quite a bit better, all things considered. This is certainly a lesser film from the Dardennes, a very rare misstep; the film even ends with a moment I thought I’d never see in a Dardenne film, a moment of two characters dropping their facades and connecting on a human level that rings completely false. The Dardennes have always been most gifted in the area of empathy; the moments of human connection are always real, powerful and deeply moving in their films, but this one just fails to land. This movie isn’t ever awful. It has plenty of good things to recommend it; the first two-thirds of the film is really good. But that last third is disappointing, sloppy and contrived. It’s worth watching, I’d say, but disappointing, for fans of the Dardennes most of all. Here’s hoping they get back on track with their next film. As it is, I expect this movie to be one that kind of drops out of their filmography when people look back on their body of work in the years to come. Kind of sad, but it seems The Unknown Girl is destined to also be forgotten. 3 stars.
tl;dr – Dardenne brothers turn in a somewhat disappointing effort; the first two-thirds are great, but even a lead performance this good can’t entirely redeem contrived final third. 3 stars.