It might seem surprising that the filmmaking team of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, known for unsparing dramas about working class issues, would make a murder mystery with “The Unknown Girl.”
But building and maintaining suspense has been a hallmark of their work, whether it’s the deadbeat father racing to buy back his infant son from black marketers in “L’enfant” or Marion Cotillard trying to convince her co-workers to save her job in “Two Days, One Night.” But the suspense in their films doesn’t come from whether good will triumph over evil, as in most thrillers. It comes from whether individuals can survive in an uncaring system that seems rigged for them to fail.
“Unknown Girl” has that same sense of economic urgency, although it wraps that fear in a more overt genre film than the Dardenne brothers have done before. It has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St., to kick off the Spotlight Cinema series. Admission is free for museum members and $7 for all others.
Adele Haenel plays Dr. Jenny Davin, an overworked doctor handling all kinds of patients in a Belgian clinic. One night, after a particularly rough day, somebody pushes the outside buzzer at the clinic. Because the clinic is closed, Davin instructs her intern (Olivier Bonnaud) not to answer the door, and tells him that part of being a good doctor is drawing boundaries. “A good doctor has to control his emotions,” she says.
It’s a statement that will come back to haunt her. The next day, police discover the body of a young woman, an African immigrant turned sex worker (Ange-Déborah Goulehi) near the canal. The woman has no identification on her and police suspect foul play. Reviewing the clinic’s surveillance tapes, Davin discovers that the prostitute was the person who rang the buzzer the night before. If Davin had answered the door, the woman might still be alive.
Crushed by guilt, Davin sets out to discover who the woman was. While she insists that she’s not trying to solve the mystery of her death, her dogged investigation ruffles some feathers in her neighborhood. Some residents would just rather ignore the presence of sex workers in their midst — many of them exploited immigrants — while others may have been involved in what happened that night.
It’s a classic mystery, as we try to determine who’s telling the truth and who’s hiding something, and why. But Dr. Davin makes a strange sort of sleuth. Rather than making brilliant deductions, her evident remorse at ignoring the girl acts as a kind of truth serum, encouraging others to unburden themselves of their own guilt.
The Dardennes shoot the film in their familiar documentary-like filmmaking style — natural lighting, no music and characters who seem like real people. Oddly, this realism heightens the suspense. Because “Unknown Girl” doesn’t feel like a movie, the peril that Davin faces as she pokes around into the girl’s death feels that much more genuine.
In the end, “Unknown Girl” is really about Davin, a physician who devotes her life to helping others, yet is still haunted by the one person she failed to assist. Her quest for justice is really a quest for forgiveness, but it’s an open question whether she will find it. As she tells someone, “She can’t be dead. She’s still in our heads.”