Directors and brothers Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne began their collaborative career making socially conscious documentaries, forming a critical eye for class and race-based politics that has carried over to their more recent work on narrative features. Their latest film, The Unknown Girl, breaks away from the blatant deliberations on those topics in economic dramas like Two Days One Night, in which Marion Cotillard has to beg those slightly better off than her for the opportunity to keep her menial blue collar job, to mix in some genre thrills to sweeten the medicine. The Unknown Girl plays with the hallmarks of a murder mystery and a medical drama as an easy in for its short form portraits of folks struggling with the class, race, and nationality divides of modern France. It subverts the expectations of a typical mystery plot by shifting focus away from seeking the identity of the killer and instead looking to uncover the identity of their victim, raising questions about the financial and abuse of power circumstances that lead to their death in the first place. There’s still a danger in asking these questions, though, even if the intent is to properly acknowledge the life & value of the victim and not to unmask their assailant.
A young medical doctor struggles to be taken seriously by her even younger male intern and frets with her own decision to leave a somewhat charitable office as a public servant for a more lucrative career with a private practice. Her insular concerns are disrupted when two criminal investigators inform her that a young woman who rang her doorbell for help late in the night, a plea she uncharacteristically ignored, was murdered at a nearby construction site. Shaken, the doctor throws her entire life into serving the patients at her meager practice, as well as launching a vigilante investigation of the murder. Sometimes the borders between these two quests are blurred and her investigation takes the form of home visits, where she employs her medical expertise in ways like checking a patient’s pulse rate as a makeshift lie detector test. Taking no time out of her endless routine to care for her own needs, she seeks answers about the identity & home life circumstances of “the unknown girl” who rang her doorbell shortly before being killed. As she puts it, “I can’t accept the idea that they’ll bury her with no name.” This oppressive sense of self-inflicted guilt extends far beyond her initial inaction to answer her door too. That worry weighs just as heavily on her as larger issues of poverty, immigration, abuse, race, and human trafficking, even if most of those underlying issues are left unspoken.
The murder mystery aspect of The Unknown Girl rarely aims for edge-of-your-seat thriller beats. Its medical drama moments don’t extend much further than focusing on the sores, burns, and addictions of the between-the-cracks societal castoffs who can’t afford proper medical care (or fear deportation if they dare to seek it). Our medical doctor protagonist is certainly isolated & vulnerable in her quest for the truth, which leads to occasional scenes of threatened or actualized violence, but that’s not where the film’s main focus lies. You can feel the Dardenne brothers’ documentarian past in The Unknown Girl‘s quiet, music-free drift through the domestic abuse, alcoholism, sex work, social services, and immigration imagery the doctor encounters on both her medical rounds and her one-woman murder investigation. As she ignores her own needs and works on her smartphone even while traveling between patients & interviewees, you get the sense that she’s trying to solve much larger systemic problems than just the death of one nameless stranger. Of course, she cannot solve every societal wrong she comes across in her daily rounds, but by the end of the film it’s easy to see how she’s made at least some small positive change in the world by trying, even when in the face of being told to butt out and the system itself remaining hopelessly broken. That’s not the usual resolution for a typical murder mystery plot structure, but The Unknown Girl‘s central concern was never its titular mystery anyway.