Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have been quietly impressing European audiences and critics alike for the last 20 years with their observant cinematic dramas that champion the downtrodden and the outcast in society. Their work —which includes Rosetta (1999), L’Enfant (2005), Rust and Bone (2012), and Two Days, One Night (2015)—has garnered numerous awards at film festivals, including two Palme D’Or and a Grand Prix at Cannes. Yet, sadly, their talents are little known in the U.S., except to the ardent fans of Marion Cotillard (who has starred in several of their films).
The Dardennes, who write, direct, and produce their films, continue their neorealist exploration of modern European life with their latest, La fille inconnue (The Unknown Girl). Like most of the Dardennes’ oeuvre, this film doesn’t succeed because of its dynamic structure or rousing performances or directorial showmanship. Instead, it subtly, insistently drills down into the lives of its characters with an unflinching honesty and deliberate lack of distracting cinematic effects.
The Unknown Girl is a simple story. Jenny Davin (played by a winsome Adele Haenel) is a hard-working, earnest young physician. At the end of a long day of seeing her working-class patients, she refuses to open her door after hours to a troubled but unknown teenage girl. When that girl turns up dead the next morning, Jenny’s guilt and curiosity lead her on an obsessive quest to learn the identity of the girl and unravel the mystery of her final hours.
In true neorealist fashion, Jenny’s quest does not produce answers or a tidy resolution, but it does explore the dehumanizing realities of daily life for the down-and-out. The Unknown Girl is not a film for those seeking entertainment or escape, but it is a testament of the power of film to depict our shared, if sometimes disregarded, humanity.
Also at Theatre N in October: Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s classic in time for the sequel (10/5 only); Ingrid Goes West, uneasy comedy with Aubrey Plaza as the ultimate fangirl (10/13 weekend), and Tales of an Immoral Couple, a Mexican romantic comedy by Manolo Carol (10/27 weekend). For specific dates and times, visit theatren.org.