For the first time in my life I booed at a movie. The applause at the official press screening of The Unknown Girl in Cannes was forced, likely meant to encourage the Dardenne Brothers, Croisette regulars. Reactions as journalists poured out of the theater were mostly negative tinged with disappointment. While I have never been a fan of their films, I did see their merits. So what happened?
A question I’d like to ask the Cannes committee. There were more hopeful movies that were left out of the official competition, as if the name Dardenne is a guarantee of quality. One hour and fifty-three minutes later, the boos are justified.
“If it was an emergency, the person would’ve knocked twice.” That’s what a young general practitioner, Dr. Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel), barks at her intern when he hears the doorbell an hour after closing time. Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), frustrated with her constant bitchy attitude, walks out, giving up med school at the same time.
Yet throughout the film she is depicted as this benevolent, saintly, understanding doctor who wants to help her community, even turning down a lucrative position in a private clinic. Yet we get a hint of her own frustrations when she uses Julien as a punching ball.
The following day, the police inform her that an unidentifiable girl’s body was found nearby and want to look over her surveillance camera tapes. Hours later they confirm that the Jane Doe was the one who had rung Jenny’s doorbell. Overcome with guilt at not having opened the door to her healing kingdom, she launches her own investigation to find out what happened to the unknown girl.
She is now part doctor, part Mother Theresa moonlighting as a wannabe private detective, walking around town showing everyone a CCTV screen capture of Jane Doe in her final moments ringing her doorbell. She soon discovers that one of her young patients, a little boy named Bryan (Louka Minnella, who gives the only noteworthy performance), knows more than he’s telling. And how does she figure this out? Well, she felt his pulse beating faster when she showed him the girl’s picture.
Haenel is said to be the actress on the rise, yet her portrayal here just falls flat. I get it—as her one-dimensional, austere character says, a doctor is supposed to keep her emotions at bay. Yet she gives the spectator nothing with which to form a bond. We don’t see any hint of anything sympathetic in her; she is simply stoic, mechanical. She only cracks a tiny smile during an umpteenth lame scene when her former intern calls to tell her that he is continuing med school. She seems to have no life, no friends, no family, no boyfriend, nothing to humanize her. Nothing we can relate to. I’ll even offer my closet psychology and say that she focuses on others (outside her practice) to escape her own empty life.
Many scenes elicited laughter at the screening, in particular when Bryan’s father (Jérémie Rémier) asks her to not look at him as he’s making a key revelation. Rénier is even more disappointing than his co-star, resorting to cliché, theatrical methods.
But I really can’t blame the actors for a weak screenplay and no direction from neither Dardenne brother.
For more from our Cannes coverage, click here. Or click on any of the review links below:
- ‘Paterson’ Review:
- The Handmaiden Review
- Julieta Review
- ‘Personal Shopper’ Review
- From the Land of the Moon Review
- ‘I, Daniel Blake’ Review
- The BFG Review
- Cafe Society Review
- Slack Bay Review
- Staying Vertical Review