Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the brothers responsible for a myriad number of films, most recently the Academy Award nominated “Two Days, One Night” starring Marion Cotillard, have brought us yet another intriguingly disturbing study of personal psychology with “The Unknown Girl.” As a young and quickly rising general practitioner, Jenny Davin (Adele Haenel) makes a fateful decision one evening at her clinic to not answer a frantic knock at the door by a young woman. She is found dead the next morning. Ridden with guilt, Jenny is consumed with finding out not only what happened to her, but to also give her an identity. It becomes a crime-thriller, but never dismisses the feeling of possible causality for this woman’s death.
The Dardenne brothers, over the course of decades in creating deeply meaningful and relatable films, sat down to talk with me at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival to discuss this film and working together. Their light-hearted yet thoughtful demeanor immediately alerted me as to why these siblings can continue to create such beautiful works of art. While I don’t speak French (there was an interpreter), the artistry in their communication style was wonderfully overpowering, communicating what mere words cannot.
Reel Honest Reviews (RHR): The psychology behind this film is intense and extraordinary, particularly as we, as humans, deal with remedying guilt. What was the impetus for this film?
Luc Dardenne (LD): The beginning of this film was not based on reality. We were more interested in a situation where somebody is responsible for the death of somebody else but we don’t actually kill [that] person. We imagined a doctor because the work of a doctor is to save lives…We took this story of a person feeling guilty for kind of killing somebody so she needs to find her name to in a way save her.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne (JPD): We hope that Jenny’s obsession is shared by each of the [viewers]. When we made the film, the migrant crisis had already begun, so the young girl in the film dies near a river…it’s a metaphor for all those immigrants who died…and are without a name. It is a necessity to give them a name.
RHR: Why a female doctor instead of a male?
LD: We never hesitated if it should be a man or a woman. It was always a woman. What we hesitated about was…having it be an older woman, but we couldn’t develop the film that we wanted to make [with an older woman]. We happened to meet Adele and we realized that she could be our doctor. Her naiveté. Her naiveté of her face. We thought we could construct the film around her.
JPD: The first time [we] met [Adele] was at an author’s society. It was really her face that made [us] feel like we could film around that face…and the way she could communicate with the other characters. She’s a French actress, but she’s not really well-known here in the Americas. She was a child movie star [and completed] three or four movies before our movie. Two years ago, she won the Cesar for best actress.
RHR: Guilt is the driving force behind Jenny’s actions. Can you tell me about this part of human psychology and how you incorporated it?
LD: We thought that Jenny’s ability of being possessed by this dead girl, but didn’t want to show this possession by showing some kind of supernatural effects, but more by showing that she does the same gestures again and again. [For example], she often shows on her phone the picture of the unknown girl. She doesn’t stop that. She doesn’t have a life anymore apart from this obsession.
RHR: I’m not familiar with all of your films, but perhaps there are some stylistic similarities. In this film, there is a sense of simplicity within the complexity of human actions. The walls are stark white or orange. There aren’t any extraneous or distracting information particularly when someone is talking. You’re completely focused on their face and their words.
JPD: It’s not typical. We gave a lot of importance to the dialogue because each character must speak and the quest is to give birth to speak the truth. So to talk in silence is very important in this film. The abstraction of the setting [augments] that.
LD: It’s our target. When you see her face and the wall, the white wall, the viewer goes to her head. It’s difficult to explain that, but we felt that and we tried.
RHR: Yes, there’s not music overlaid, is there?
JPD: It accentuates what’s happening in the film.
RHR: I have to ask about working together as siblings. I know what my brother and I are like. What is it like for the two of you when you disagree? I’m sure you have differences of opinions.
JPD: No, never! [laughs]
LD: It happens that we work together and that we speak a lot and we have the same intuition.
JPD: I believe it’s because we happen to [have met] a theater director and to start working together. He was like our spiritual father.
LD: Maybe it’s better not to know! [laughs]
We continued to discuss the differences in medical care and practices in Belgium versus the United States, all of us intrigued by the other’s situation. I’d like to thank the interpreter for her skills in communicating my questions and relaying the brothers’ responses. I’d also like to thank Jean-Pierre and Luc for their time and for their efforts in using English which were extraordinary.