The Unknown Girl (2017)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Body Puzzle (1992)

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Body Puzzle is a 1992 giallo film directed by Lamberto Bava, the son of legendary Italian horror maestro Mario Bava and frequent collaborator of Dario Argento (having, among other things, been the assistant director of both Inferno and Tenebrae). The film follows the story of Tracy, a widowed manuscript editor who begins receiving body parts wrapped in wax paper following the revelation that her late husband’s body has been disinterred. Although the film as poorly received in its time, it holds up as a kind of last gasp of true giallo, even if the mystery of the film relies on a twist that doesn’t quite work.

The film opens on an unnamed man (François Montagut) who is seen playing the piano before his practice is interrupted by the memory of an evening in which he engaged in a car chase with a motorcycle rider, an apparent friend who he repeatedly demanded slow down; the chase ends with the biker crashing and dying. This same man then murders a confectionary shopkeeper, which brings Detective Michele (Tomas Arana, of La chiesa) into the fray, where he and his partner Gigli (Matteo Gazzolo) discuss the fact that ghastly murderers always seem to take a trophy from their victims. Elsewhere, Tracy (Joanna Pacula) plans to visit the grave of her husband, but is shocked to discover that his body has been dug up. She returns home to discover an ear wrapped in wax paper in her fridge, and Michele realizes that the serial killer on the loose has been keeping pieces of his victims not for himself but to give them to Tracy, who is understandable unnerved by this. As she and Michele grow closer, he realizes that all of the victims share one thing in common: they were the recipients of organs from Tracy’s dead husband, Abe; further, it seems Abe may not have been all he seemed on the surface when he was alive. The murderer may, in fact, be a former lover of Abe’s, driven to madness by the fact that he was responsible for the latter’s death.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but this is a fun little giallo thriller, with delightful cinematography and a plot that works, for the most part. The tension builds slowly as it becomes apparent that there is no safe place for Tracy no matter where she goes, and the final reveal is foreshadowed in a manner that is utterly unexpected but fits all the clues that we have seen so far, minus a red herring that I am certain made most contemporary reviewers rather pissed, given the film’s overall low aggregate rating. The terror of the killer’s victims is palpable, and there are some great set pieces that permeate the run time: the multiple reflections of the killer’s visage as he stalks a woman in a mall before cornering her in a bathroom and amputating her hand is quite powerful, although it pales in comparison to the murder of a teacher in front of a classroom full of blind students, who have no idea what is happening. The film’s cinematography and planning is not perfect, however, and it’s a surprise how many amateurish mistakes slipped through in the film considering how long Bava had been directing at this point. There are reflections of camera operators in vehicle windows, which happens, but the final chase sequence uses undercranked footage to give the illusion of high speed but the movements of the actors and the scenery betray this attempted cinematic sleight of hand. Still, these imperfections don’t ruin the film, and it’s definitely worth watching if you get the opportunity.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond