Cannes 2016: La Fille Inconnue (The Unknown Girl)

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

Adèle Haenel brings subtle emotional depth and a dogged persistence to the role of Dr Jenny Davin in the Dardennes brothers’ newest offering of clinical Belgian social realism. Though the premise is suspect, and some plot convolutions jar along with an overall pace that is, to put it kindly, leisured, La Fille Inconnue studiously depicts the codes of practice and ethical quandaries of a medical career. Davin’s strident professionalism and moral righteousness are cleverly juxtaposed with an obsessive, sometimes invasive, pursuit of answers as she takes it upon herself to discover the identity of a girl killed after being refused entry into her doctor’s practice.

Davin and her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) finish up at the surgery having already stayed an hour over time. Earlier, a young boy had suffered a fit in the waiting room. Julien is shaken, irate and wishes to quit. The buzzer rings but Davin tells Julien that there will be no more patients admitted. If it were urgent “they would ring twice”. The consequences of this decision play out almost immediately: a dead girl is found the next morning by the river. Davin probes and pesters policemen, colleagues and patients, wracked with a personal guilt that permeates those she interrogates. Of particular interest are patients Bryan (indigestion) and his father (slipped disc), respectively played by Louka Minnella and Jèrèmie Renier. The Dardennes invoke the traditional tenets of crime mystery and police procedural – investigation, deception, clues and red herrings – but where good detective work usually solves the case, here private guilt and external pressures become the faulty deliverers of justice.

Davin is the hero, her hair pinned back in a ponytail, her body wrapped in a blue tartan coat. She’s the strait-laced cousin of Frances McDormand’s police chief in Fargo. Haenel beautifully articulates the character’s mental toughness. Her reticence and response dovetail rhythmically in the face of provocations, appeals and rejections. The doctor who cannot save everyone is an admittedly well-worn trope, but the Dardennes imbue the film with a level of humanity and an understanding of people which makes particular scenes intensely moving. By the end, we appreciate what duty of care truly entails.

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Published by

Joseph Owen

PhD, Carl Schmitt, Modernism and Sovereignty at University of Southampton

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