Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne – La fille inconnue AKA The Unknown Girl (2016)

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In Jean Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s very best films, you know exactly what you’re getting — until the quiet dramatic pivot that gently ensures you don’t. In “The Unknown Girl,” only the first half of that assessment is true, though what we get is largely exemplary: a simple but urgent objective threaded with needling observations of social imbalance, a camera that gazes with steady intent into story-bearing faces, and an especially riveting example of one in their gifted, toughly tranquil leading lady Adèle Haenel. What’s missing, however, from this stoically humane procedural tale of a guilt-racked GP investigating a nameless passer-by’s passing, is any great sense of narrative or emotional surprise: It’s a film that skilfully makes us feel precisely what we expect to feel from moment to moment, up to and including the long-forestalled waterworks. Though it will receive the broad distribution practically guaranteed the Belgian brothers’ work these days, the film is unlikely to prove one of their sensations — more the healthy arthouse equivalent of a biennial checkup.

It may follow in the Dardennes’ tradition of sensibly prosaic titles, but “The Unknown Girl” would also be a good fit for a film noir — which, in a thoroughly dressed-down, cleanly lit way, their tenth feature kind of is. Though it benefited from a performance of unvarnished authenticity by Marion Cotillard, 2014’s “Two Days, One Night” was arguably the brothers’ most narratively contrived film to date, built on a neat structure of staggered confrontations that eventually yielded the required catharsis. Landing with critics, audiences and even Academy voters alike, it was a successful shift in register, so it’s not altogether surprising to see them now meshing their signature social realism with tentative genre trappings.

She may tote a stethoscope rather than a handgun, and favors a particularly shaggy plaid variation on a trenchcoat, but fresh-faced Dr. Jenny Davin (Haenel) is, to all intents and purposes, the protagonist in an old-school, hard-boiled detective movie — right down to her fixation on the face of a dead woman whom she has only seen in images (or, in this case, an agonizingly short burst of CCTV footage). The woman in question, unidentified for much of the running time, is evidently an African immigrant, captured banging desperately one evening on the front door of Davin’s surgery in Liège; shortly afterwards, she’s found dead of a fractured skull in the banks of the Meuse. As the police, devoid of leads, turn to Davin for details, she realises with horror that she was in during the woman’s attempted after-hours entrance — and remembers deliberately ignoring the buzzer.

Unable to shake the idea that answering the door might have saved the woman’s life, and distraught at the idea of her being buried without a name, Davin embarks on an insistent amateur investigation of her own. It’s one that leads her to skim the drab surface of Liège’s underworld, but more often into the modest homes of local residents — her own patients among them. Mixing some gumshoe work into her house calls, she demonstrates an interrogation style as calm and unflappable as her bedside manner. “Emotional involvement leads to a bad diagnosis,” she chides her less assured intern Julien (newcomer Olivier Bonnaud) near the start of proceedings, though Davin finds it increasingly difficult to maintain that clinical distance as her non-medical quest pushes on toward a moving but mostly expected resolution.

The Dardennes’ typically unfussy, clear-spoken script breaks up the grim determination of Davin’s search with regular vignettes from her working day. Each one extends our understanding of the city’s hard-wearing social fabric, be it a middle-class teen resiliently battling leukemia or a language-challenged burn victim who fears deportation if he visits a hospital for his grievous injuries. Though the film resists direct political or administrative commentary, Davin tellingly rejects a loftier hospital appointment in favor of maintaining a threatened practice for patients on medical insurance rates. The gulf between her generally unimpeachable virtue as a doctor and the moral self-loathing she feels over once turning a blind eye to one in need, however, is heavily inscribed throughout, while a subplot that sees her attempting to revive a disenchanted Julien’s passion for medicine is rather too patly drawn.

Though “The Unknown Woman” features a veritable alumni gathering of past and regular players from the Dardennes’ films — Olivier Gourmet, Fabrizio Rongione, Jérémie Renier, Thomas Doret, Jean-Michel Bathazar — in roles that range from passingly to piquantly minor, the film serves chiefly as a showcase for the wonderful Haenel. Proving, in her first collaboration with the brothers, an intuitive thespian match for their delicate, not-overly-demonstrative emotional intelligence, she works softly against the grain of her character’s general goodness — playing up the moments of cold internal panic and silent judgment that lead her, not always fairly, to doubt her own compassion.

As ever, the Dardennes’ filmmaking proves serenely accomplished in deflecting attention away from itself. Alain Marcoen’s even-keeled, easy-breathing lensing often achieves the effect of complete stillness while understatedly directing the viewer’s gaze to fine, expressive details of an actor’s countenance. Marie-Hélène Dozo’s editing likewise shapes and paces human encounters in ways that feel entirely organic, working up anxious cinematic tension without ever seeming beholden to a rigid storytelling structure. The Dardennes may not currently be working in a vein of the strictest realism, but the results still feel markedly, airily natural.







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Language(s):French
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Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne – Deux jours, une nuit AKA Two Days, One Night (2014)

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Sandra, a young Belgian mother, discovers that her workmates have opted for a significant pay bonus, in exchange for her dismissal. She has only one weekend to convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job.
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Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne – La promesse AKA The Promise (1996)

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SYNOPSIS
‘La Promesse’ is the story of 15 year old Igor, who helps his small time crook father run a scam illegally employing immigrants on building sites. But when one of the workers is fatally injured, Igor promises to look after the man’s wife and child – a promise that changes Igor’s life forever. (ArtificialEye)

“The Promise” is the extraordinary story of a boy’s ascendance to grace. Under the conscienceless guidance of his father (Olivier Gourmet as Roger), fifteen-year old Igor appears destined to a life of petty crime. All changes, however, when Igor delivers an uncompromising promise to Hamidou – an immigrant who while working illegally for Roger accidentally falls to his death. As Roger scrambles to cover-up the accident, Igor suddenly finds himself torn between his loyalty to Roger and the agreement he made with Hamidou. Suspicious of Roger’s motivation and intimately drawn to the heart of his promise, Igor must choose between his love for his father and the demands of his awakening conscience. (New Yorker Video) Continue reading

Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne – Falsch (1987)

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Just before twilight, a four-engine plane lands on the runway of a country airport. The plane comes to a halt. A single passenger disembarks: Joe, the last survivor of a Jewish family, the Falsches. He has an appointment with them all tonight, forty years after leaving Berlin for New York in 1938. They are all waiting for him in the arrival lounge of the airport. A night of encounters, of celebrations beyond life and death; a meeting which will soon turn into a family psychodrama.Thirteen people will confront each other about their links to Germany, their life in exile, the presence of Lilli among the Falsches; the cries of anguish in the face of death in the camps, incomprehensible to those who went into exile, the Berlin of today, where nobody remembers the Falsches – not even Joe, who would prefer to forget, and never see them again. Continue reading

Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne – Il court… il court le monde (1987)

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John, a television director, is preparing a show on speed. A phone call from his girlfriend Sophie makes him leave the studio in a hurry. Ηe drives fast and quarrels with another driver. John is upset; he insults the other man and drives off. In the meantime, the producer of the show changes John’s editing. John’s assistant calls him at home but John tells him that they should talk later. John hears the sound of another car and looks out the window.We hear the sound of an accident. John shouts and runs out onto the road. Sophie has hit a pedestrian. She was on her way to tell John that they are expecting a child
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Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne – Je pense à vous (1992)

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Belgium, 1980. On the banks of the Meuse River, against the enormous background of a steel-producing city, factories close one after another and lay off workers. One of those made redundant is Fabrice who, at thirty-five, is proud of his trade, rendered mythical by fire and steel, but feels he has become useless. His wife, Celine, tries to renew his interest in life. Despite a few moments of rediscovered happiness, Fabrice remains trapped in his confusion and one day disappears… Celine, her intense love leading the way, goes looking for him and eventually finds him. Once again, she tries to save him from himself. Can love resuscitate a languishing man? That is Celine’s wager. Continue reading

Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne – Le Fils AKA The Son [+Extras] (2002)

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Olivier is a good teacher of carpentry, but a touch gruff; even so, when he refuses to accept young Francis into his workshop, that doesn’t explain why he takes to following the boy, as if he were spying on him. Might it have something to do with his own dead son, as his estranged wife insists?

One strength of the Dardennes’ follow-up to Rosetta, winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or, is that, once again, they ask us to discover certain crucial facts for ourselves: by the time we’re faced with questions of ethical and spiritual import, we’ve done enough groundwork to assess the evidence properly. Wisely, the camera stays close to Olivier, with the result that, notwithstanding his subtle understatement and a relatively taciturn script, we’re privy to his every fleeting thought and nagging emotion. Never manipulative or sensationalist, the film is none the less deeply moving. – Time Out Continue reading