The architecture of the thriller suits the Dardennes more comfortably than it might first appear. In spite of their naturalism, the Belgian brothers construct intricate scaffolding for their films to rival many of their more outwardly formalist peers, and The Unknown Girl is perhaps more open about the structural blueprint than anything they’ve produced recently. A generic—in every sense of the word—tale of bad conscience gets the trademark handheld treatment in the dreary world of Liège, but it could just as well emerge from the wet streets of a 40s noir.
Guilt comes knocking, as it must, at the door of Dr. Jenny Davin. An unidentified African girl running from something sinister pleads entry into the safety of Davin’s clinic, though the young doctor is too busy lecturing her intern on the finer points of the profession to bother with the noise down the hall. The girl’s body is found nearby, and distraught at the consequences of her indifference, Davin hits the detective beat, searching for the girl’s name in an effort to offer her a modicum of dignity in death that the final moments of her life denied. Ratiocination unveils a web of guilt ensnaring everything in the doctor’s orbit, as if all of Liège harbors some complicity in this original sin, which, given the ethnic lines that divide here, suggests a reckoning with Belgium’s colonial past and present woes, though the capital ‘C’ Catholic Dardennes make it clear that no one escapes the fearful symmetry of guilt’s trap.
Trapped, certainly, but not unmovable. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne may be clandestine formalists, but they’re also heart-on-the-sleeve humanists. The maze-like geometry of The Unknown Girl points towards noirish cynicism only to refute it. An embrace—with responsibility, with other people—is enough to open up a way out.