Movie Review: ‘THE UNKNOWN GIRL’ sets white feminism’s slacktivism on fire

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

THE UNKNOWN GIRL

Not Rated, 1 hour 53 min
Directed by: Jean-Pierre DardenneLuc Dardenne
Starring: Adèle HaenelOlivier BonnaudJérémie Renier, Louka Minnella, Olivier Gourmet

There’s a mystery driving the narrative of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s THE UNKNOWN GIRL. It’s not a good one per se, but it’s almost what you’d expect from the brothers handling genre material. However, instead of getting an exhilarating portrait of a crumbling psyche pushed to the brink by obsession, we get something far different – a thematic rehashing of the auteurs’ best works. That said, it also doubles as a definitive call to arms – spilling the tea, so to speak, on white feminism’s slacktivism.

Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) is an attentive doctor. She responds just as immediately to her scheduled clinic patients as she does the walk-ins. She takes the Hippocratic oath seriously, chiding her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) for freezing up. However, one night, she fails to answer the door – a literal take on Joseph Campbell’s ‘refusal of the call.’ It sets off an unimaginable chain of events, as security camera footage reveals the person ringing was a female African prostitute, found dead up the road from the clinic. Jenny, wracked with guilt over her bad judgement, sets out on a conscience-cleansing missing to make sure the young deceased woman won’t be forgotten.

Adèle Haenel in THE UNKNOWN GIRL. Courtesy of Sundance Selects.

Most noticeably, THE UNKNOWN GIRL shares similar narrative ties with TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT. Much like how Sandra is forced to travel from place to place to unite a reticent community, Jenny is tasked to do the same in her amateur sleuthing. In THE SON and LA PROMESSE, the death of one character awakens the guilty conscience of another. A fracture of trust occurs in L’ENFANT. The struggles of lesser class are explored through a criminal element in LORNA’S SILENCE. The filmmakers’ favorite themes of consequence, family and work also proliferate the picture. Like ROSETTA, THE KID WITH THE BIKE and the aforementioned TWO DAYS, the Belgian Brothers tell their tale through the lens of a capable female protagonist – and Haenel’s magnetism is on par with Émilie Dequenne, Cecil De France and Marion Cotillard. Plus, they use frequent collaborators like Jérémie Renier (who I call the French Jeremy Renner) and Olivier Gourmet to round out the cast.

That said, playing their greatest hits collection doesn’t exactly work in a mounting crime drama. It’s the lowest low-key mystery you’ll probably see in your lifetime. Much of the film feels like its treading water. It’s a slog to watch Jenny go from place to place and get nowhere. The most excitement is when she gets assaulted in her car by random thugs and pushed into a pit. The mystery ends on a whimper. Yes, we feel as defeated as she does, but her anguish, anxiety and regret don’t seem as palpable as they do mechanical. Is this an altruistic mission on Jenny’s part or is this selfish? FRIENDS debated this same moral conundrum already – that true altruism can’t exist because it’s almost always self-motivated. Could this be the Dardenne’s commentary on white feminism’s lackadaisical, selective activism? Possibly. If so, they light it up in the subtlest way imaginable, which is true to their voice, though lacking the heat necessary to scald its viewers.

Grade: C+

THE UNKNOWN GIRL opens in limited release on September 15.

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