This is the first time I've checked the upcoming weather forecast before thinking about how to recommend a movie, which sounds odd, but I can explain. With The Unknown Girl, we have on our hands a prototypical foreign-language art film. It's the kind of picture you see, are momentarily changed by and then try but fail to encapsulate later with a friend over coffee. My dream for you is to quit your job, then find solace from dreary weather by seeing this picture alone in a theater on a weekday afternoon. As luck would have it, the forecast is on my side for my weird fantasy: Clouds and showers with a high in the 50s on the film's opening Friday, and then a string of partly cloudy days thereafter.
The Unknown Girl is written and directed by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Their 2014 film, Two Days, One Night about a factory worker fighting to keep her job won Marion Cotillard an Oscar nomination for best actress.
I have similar hopes for Adèle Haenel, who stars in The Unknown Girl as a Belgian doctor named Jenny. We first meet Jenny on the job with her intern, Julien (Olivier Bonnaud). They've already stayed long over office hours when the buzzer rings. Julien wants to let the person in, but Jenny's determined to demonstrate toughness and boundaries. The door buzzes once more before the anonymous caller wanders off. The next day, detectives show up to deliver the bad news: The girl at the door was the film's titular "unknown girl," an African teenager frantically trying to escape her attackers, and now they've found her corpse in a nearby body of water.
Of course, Jenny couldn't have known the stakes and it's not her fault, but she absorbs the woman's tragedy anyway. From there, Jenny embarks on a methodical investigation into the girl's identity, death and potential killers. The murder-mystery scaffolding technically qualifies the picture as a "thriller," but the adjective's a bit rich. In fact, this is a modern exercise in neorealism, made famous by the Italians in the 1940s—think back to Introduction to Film: The Bicycle Thief, and so on. The Unknown Girl has a haunting voyeuristic quality, made possible by cinematographer Alain Marcoen. (I'm rarely inclined to call out a cameraman by name, but Marcoen's work here is so accomplished and invisible that it warrants special attention.) And forget about a score to guide you through the emotional experience. We're on our own.
Jenny's a fascinating example of a woman in a helping profession who can't resist the impulse to give too much of herself. She makes house calls at all hours, answers patients' calls on her commute and, at the end of the day, goes home alone to a quiet, sad apartment. After all, the one time she tried to practice professional distance, a young girl ended up dead. So now, for better or worse, she's not going to let that kind of regret into her life again.
I first saw this film in late May at the Seattle International Film Festival with a hopeful sun waiting for me outside. The weather spoke not at all to the bleak Belgian landscape Jenny endured during her detective work. When she's not in hospital scrubs, Jenny spends much of the movie clad in an ugly plaid pea coat, and the ugliness matters. She's a beautiful girl who never takes a moment to admire her reflection. Instead, she gives everything of herself away. Even if the Dardennes' quiet style ends up underwhelming you, I hope you will at least join me in hating that coat.
The Unknown Girl opens at the Roxy Fri., Sept. 29.