This is the first movie from the Dardenne brothers that I’ve outright hated. I was starting to feel weary of them before seeing it. Okay, I get it: no music, handheld photography, people riding around on mopeds, moral and/or spiritual parables. I would say Rosetta is very good, The Son is tremendous, and The Kid with a Bike is decent (finally some variation in their style), while L’Enfant is overwrought and their other stuff is forgettable. The clearest antecedent of The Unknown Girl in their body of work is La Promesse, which is also a wankfest of white guilt. In La Promesse, the son of a man who exploits migrants insists on keeping a promise he made to one of his father’s victims on the brink of death to protect the man’s family. In The Unknown Girl, a white doctor refuses to open the door for a black woman seeking help in the middle of the night, and that woman–later revealed to be an undocumented immigrant– is killed the same night. The doctor becomes hellbent on discovering the woman’s identity and the truth of what happened to her. The film tediously follows her around town as she reveals herself to be an astonishingly good detective who immediately encounters all the key players through pure happenstance and gradually guilts them into revealing what they know. Surprise: everyone has failed the dead woman. The final revelations are convoluted yet predictable and in no way justify the amount of buildup that precedes them.
The Unknown Girl is overflowing with smug moral narcissism. It imagines that it’s a moral achievement to seek closure for oneself as a complicit middle class white person through extensive wallowing and empty symbolic gestures. Situate this film in the contemporary political context and it just becomes unbearably cloying. The title of the New York Times review of the film is “The Hard Road of Decency in The Unknown Girl.” I don’t think this is intended as sarcasm (the review is positive), but taken as sarcasm it hits the nail on the head: this film finds moral triumph in ineffectual self-flagellation as a response to atrocity. It’s like Haneke’s Cache without teeth.