My cards are already on the table about this: frame for frame, I think Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are the best film directors working today. They are certainly the auteurs whose work I am most anxious to see. They rarely fail to inspire and they never disappoint.
Their latest, The Unknown Girl, had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s a very good film, but it is challenging, with a slant toward pessimism that may make it a bit harder to warm up to than The Kid With a Bike or Two Days, One Night. Those films featured … not happy endings, exactly, but conclusions that ended on beats of hope.
The Unknown Girl by contrast is at least the third Dardennes film I can think of off the top of my head with a character who attempts suicide. (It’s not the protagonist.) In the Q&A following the film Jean-Pierre affirmed that the primary motivation driving this protagonist is guilt. Those feelings may be enough to motivate her (or us) to do the right thing, at least temporarily, but can they sustain us and motivate us through a life of service we often choose as penance?
The story revolves around Dr. Jenny Davin, a demanding but successful doctor recently invited to leave the clinic she is at and join a more lucrative practice. When the buzzer to the clinic sounds well after normal working hours — and catches Jenny in a particularly peevish mood — she ignores it. Later she finds out the woman who rang it was murdered.
Jenny takes on two forms of penance. She reverses her decision to leave the practice for a more lucrative job and she conducts an amateur investigation showing the woman’s photograph from the security cameras to anyone she can think of. She is convinced that a teenage patient knows more about the woman than he is revealing, but neither the police, the criminal elements of her neighborhood, nor the everyday people around her are particularly anxious to look into the matter.
Is the world getting worse? The Dardennes’ films have always been ones in which people were selfish, but violence was perhaps more prevalent in the form of institutional oppression than personal attacks. The murder in Le fils takes place before the film even starts. Or maybe the threat is there all along, but it is located in a criminal class to whom one sells babies or defies at one’s perils. Violence is not something that ordinary people do to each other. It’s not something you can do after looking your neighbor in the face. At least it used not to be. When Sandra is physically threatened in Two Days, One Night, it feels like a shock. Jenny is threatened at least three times in this movie. She is called a “bitch” by a patient who is angered by her refusal to give a false prescription. She is pushed into a ditch by one character and run off the road by two others. (It is perhaps telling — and so typical of the Dardennes’ philosophy — that before the actual culprit confesses, he makes Jenny turn away so as to not have to look at her face.)
The other half of the Dardennes’ universe are the characters who do something good at great personal cost. When, like Sandra, they do so in service of their own interests, the resulting film can be about resilience. When they do so out of pure altruism, as in The Kid With a Bike, the resulting film can be inspirational. What about, though, when the characters do have a motivation, just one we may not agree with entirely? If I’m honest, the character Jenny most reminds me of is Olivier in Les fils. There is something in these characters’ sacrifices that is horrifying as well as inspiring, because we can’t believe that God would require this much of us. By all means, give some money to buy a homeless person a funeral plot. But sacrifice your whole life? Reorient your goals to serve the poor? That’s…disproportionate!
I don’t feel particularly clever for pointing out that the film’s title could just as easily refer to Jenny as to the nameless crime victim. Of her past we know nothing. The doctor from whom she buys the practice does reminder her that she has previously said she did not want a life of patients on government assistance. Her colleagues at the wealthier practice agree to hold her position a short while, convinced she will have a change of heart once her first flash of guilt is appeased. That lack of a history is only a problem, though, if we are troubled by the obvious answers manifested in her actions. Why do we hate her inscrutability so much? Why do we want another, more cynical explanation except, perhaps, to feel better about ourselves? Why is it so much easier to be inspired by and cheer the one big gesture than the daily minute ones?
I’ll be going back for seconds later this week. I’ve learned this about the Dardennes. Their films are formally simple but thematically very complex. And that’s a good thing. I certainly felt better after Two Days, One Night but not every film need be about making us feel good, right?