With their double Palme d’Or winner status, the Dardenne brothers are undoubtedly a force here in Cannes, and attention must always be paid when their films screen in competition.
Their latest is The Unknown Girl, starring Adele Haenel as Dr Jenny Davin, a serious, overworked young GP in Liege, who becomes consumed with guilt when, one night after her surgery has long closed, she refuses to answer a buzz at her intercom downstairs.
Soon to start work in a smarter new practise, Dr Davin is shocked to be met the next morning by two police detectives who are following up on the murder of a young black woman. They want to look at Davin’s CCTV footage and, sure enough, the victim turns out to be the finger behind that urgent, single buzz on the intercom – i.e. the one that big-hearted Dr Davin let get away.
She is consumed by her guilt and sets off on a mission around town to find out who this girl really was, showing anyone she comes across on her house calls a video grab photo on her mobile phone. It’s a rather creaky device (both the handset and the plot point), not nearly as dramatically plausible as Marion Cotillard’s small town odyssey in Two Days One Night.
As Dr Davin goes about her business healing the sick and the poor and the lame, she also entwines herself in a sort of small town cover up plot, involving dodgy people the back of a Cybercafe (yes, a Cybercafe), African networks of child prostitution, brutal camper van owners, wheezing pensioners, bullying fathers, furtive kids sick with guilty indigestion, and probably dodgy or plain lazy cops.
It all felt very undercooked to me, like an episode of Casualty. Maybe the Dardennes are bidding for their own TV long-form franchise on Amazon, with Dr Davin Investigates. Prescriptions, She Wrote? An Inspector Doctor Makes House Calls?
This was really reedy stuff from film makers who can and have done a lot better. I found Haenel’s face irritating and not interesting enough to hold the Dardenne close-up. She’s constantly parking her car, making shitty food (tomatoes in marge, nom nom), taking phone calls and answering that bloody intercom now every time it buzzes.
I didn’t believe her or trust in the organic process of the plot she becomes involved in. Did they have a script meeting at any point? Er, African child smugglers, that’ll do. Where do they hang out? Oh yeah, Jean-Pierre says they’re always skulking round the back of a Cybercafe, making cheap phone calls and shoving underage kids onto the streets for the pleasure of the local petit bourgeois.
And when the guilt proves all too much for one of the sketchily drawn characters, I confessed I laughed with derision at his suicide bid, which suggests the film makers had not quite got their undoubtedly good intentions across.
Not only should this plodding, turgid, lazily conceived film not win a third Palme d’Or, it shouldn’t even be in Competition, let alone on the biggest screen in Europe.
Avoid. Even if it rings your intercom when you’re closed.