In many ways, The Unknown Girl feels like a transitional work for the Dardenne Brothers, a combination and calibration of their early and late styles that epitomises the best of both. On the one hand, this is their first film since Lorna’s Silence to be shot in winter. To some extent, that return to a wintery palette was inevitable – while The Kid with a Bike was startling and disorienting in its bright and sunny palette, the brightness was already starting to take on a bleaker edge in Two Days, One Night, where it illuminated and heightened every pore of Marion Cotillard’s face as she sought remuneration from an exploitative manufacturer of solar energy panels. At the same time, both The Kid with a Bike and Two Days, One Night subtly made it clear that this brightness was also a function of the ongoing gentrification of Seraing, the Dardennes’ home city, a process that only served to heighten the desperation and debilitation of those characters left behind by the arrival of a new wave of upwardly mobile middle class residents anxious to reclaim its grim tones and textures as industrial chic.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the Dardennes have paired this renewed wintry outlook with a shift in location to Liege, a neighbouring town and industrial enclave of Seraing. While Liege has featured previously in their work, it has always been as a gentrified cousin to Seraing, but it’s clear that by this point the tables have turned, with Liege here presented in much the same light as the industrial zones of Seraing that populated the Dardennes’ earliest films. Against that backdrop, the brothers outline one of their grimmest and most unremitting narratives in some time, as well as one of their most compelling characters – Dr. Jenny Davin (Adele Haenel), a gifted young G.P. who is temporarily filling in at a small clinic before starting her career at a more prestigious practice. In the opening scene of the film, Dr. Davin ignores a late buzz at the clinic door to dress down her intern about some poor behavior earlier in the day, only to discover the next morning that the woman she turned away was murdered across the road several minutes later. From there, she gradually embarks upon a journey to discover what happened to this unknown woman, as well as a more general process of soul-searching that starts with her decision to remain working at this particular clinic instead of opting for more lucrative patients and prestigious professional surroundings.
As with the Dardennes’ earliest features, that all takes place against a backdrop of cosmic industrial flux, with Dr. Davin’s clinic leading directly onto a major expressway, which in turn leads directly onto the River Meuse. Virtually the entire film takes place in and around these two zones, while the unknown woman’s body is found between them, on a concrete slab on the river bank that has already been removed by barge when Dr. Davin comes down to investigate the next day. As the two main sources of industrial traffic in Seraing, the river and expressway suffuse every scene with a grey noise and grey light that occludes everything outside of Dr. Davin’s work life, especially once she takes on the full burden of the practice and starts making house calls on a regular basis. At this point, her office gradually recedes into just one node amongst many along this industrial continuum, while most of her time tends to be spent walking or driving through all the spaces that are continuous with or contiguous to the river-expressway complex, rather than in her actual surgery. Throughout their career, the Dardennes have always imbued the ground and floor with an almost magnetic intensity, a sense that characters will be brought to their knees if they don’t invest in the most propulsive momentum possible just to stay upright. Here, however, that’s taken in a different direction, with Dr. Davin continually trying and failing to extricate herself from a series of ever-intensifying lateral obligations and competing demands that prevent her ever channeling her powers in any one single direction.
In part, that sense of dispersed, lateral movement is a characteristic of the Dardennes’ later work, in which the intensive propulsive momentum of their earliest features has started to settle into a more peripatetic sense of pace and procession. If their earliest films presented plosive forward movement as a necessary counterpoint to being brought down to the ground, these later films are more interested in a ceaseless, restless centripetal momentum, a sense that any single movement is now destined to be contained, co-opted and destroyed, forcing their protagonists to disperse their energy across a wider and more flexible terrain in order to remain upright. For all that The Unknown Girl recalls the palette and textures of the Dardennes’ earliest films, then, it also pairs them with this later sense of movement and momentum, as Dr. Davin’s gradual investigation of the unknown girl’s background and history becomes inextricable from her ever-expanding rounds and duties as a doctor working in the public sector. As the ambit of her investigation becomes synonymous with the ambit of her house calls, her practice comes to feel more and more like a way of intervening, however tentatively and modestly, in this industrial flux – intervening in it, rather than escaping from it – until the procedural and peripatetic elements of the film become completely indistinguishable from one another.
In other words, whereas the earlier Dardenne films envisaged Seraing as a vast reservoir of labour-power whose energy could be harnessed by disenfranchised workers as much as exploitative employers, The Unknown Girl culminates a more recent movement away from this cosmic vision of Seraing and Liege as the centre of the industrial universe. In The Kid with a Bike, Two Days, One Night and The Unknown Girl, we’re presented with protagonists who are still subjugated by exploitative industrial conditions but unable to tap in directly to the same kind of visceral and primal labour-power that seemed to circulate in the Dardennes’ first features, if only because that labour-power has now been subsumed into a gentrified industrial workplace whose putative professionalism makes it difficult to focus or fixate upon any one exploitative agent. What ensues is not dissimilar to the bureaucratic workplace dramas of Stephane Brize’s The Measure of a Man or Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake – both, in their own ways, evolutions of the Dardennes’ vision – with the distinction that the Dardennes are much more invested in framing these workplace dramas in industrial terms, to the point where it is the sublimation and attempted erasure of industrial relations, as much as the industrial relations themselves, that have come to form the main subject of their later features.
It’s appropriate, then, that the central revelation of The Unknown Girl doesn’t really focus on the fate of the unknown girl so much as the way in which Dr. Davin’s investigation of her fate clarifies the industrial co-ordinates and parameters of her own profession. As if continually compensating for not answering the door in the opening scene, she refuses to ignore a single buzzer for the rest of the film, which seems to attract more patients in turn, until it’s clear that she can and will be called out to examine patients at literally any time of day or night. Accordingly, as the film proceeds, more and more of her appointments occur at night, or in the small hours of the morning, as she casts her peripatetic web wider and wider in order to maintain energy and momentum in the face of a workplace that requires total twenty-four hour obedience. That the procedural investigation emerges naturally out of this process is the deft kernel of the film, as the story of the unknown girl occurs inadvertently as a by-product of Dr. Davin’s decision to embrace individual practice and deal primarily with patients on medical insurance rates rather than those who can afford to pay privately.
In other words, The Unknown Girl takes a form of subservience that has always been associated with strictly working-class jobs in the Dardennes’ universe and applies it to the medical profession, or at least the kind of medical work that Dr. Davin is doing. In its own way, then, it’s as much of a workplace drama as, say, Rosetta – certainly there is absolutely nothing outside work in the film – and yet because of the shift from an industrial to a supposedly non-industrial workplace, the peripatetic and investigative tendencies that have been so naturalised in the Dardennes’ previous work can seem contrived or even absurd at first glance. Yet this appearance – which seems to have alienated so many critics from the film – dissipates once you follow Dr. Davin’s realization that her work isn’t all that different in kind from those of the people she treats – her own version of class consciousness – and that her position as doctor doesn’t guarantee her any kind of privileged space outside of industrial relations so much as yet another vantage point from which their erasure and invisibility occludes any sustained sense of individual action or agency. More than even Two Days, One Night, then, the concluding note of The Unknown Girl is one of bafflement and disorientation, as well as a more emergent taste for the preposterousness of trying to set oneself against such amorphous and inconceivable forces of exploitation and inequality.
For all those reasons, then, there is something markedly unfinished about The Unknown Girl, a sense of genuine disorientation and frustration on the part of the Dardennes that makes the final insights into immigration somewhat stillborn and imbues the conclusion as a whole with a certain contrivance and artificiality. At several key moments, the brothers seem to register inexorable some limit to the capacity of even their most cosmically naturalistic tendencies to discern and articulate the increasing – and increasingly dispersed – exploitation that confronts their characters, resulting in some of the most emphatically genre-oriented moments in their careers. Yet to pan the film on this basis is to refuse to see these genre moments for what they are – crises in meaning and placeholders for what remains unrepresentable – just as the swathe of negative reviews feels like a refusal to allow the Dardennes to grow, revise and thin aloud. Even then, the critical backlash ignores the overwhelming continuities between The Unknown Girl and the most striking moments in the Dardennes’ earlier films, since the departures here are really not that great in comparison to the overall richness and robustness of their vision, which – somehow – continues to remain as restless and agitated as ever in the face of its stark subject matter.