Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 21, 2016 6:46 am 
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Another dogged pursuit, harder to care about

The Belgian directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne make masterful films about moral awakenings and obsessive pursuits of a task. Here is another one of those, if more of the latter than of the former.

In La promesse, which put them on the map, it was a teenage son (the start for the great Jérémie Renier) in defiance of his mean father (the equally great Olivier Gourmet) keeping a pledge to do right by an abused immigrant. In Rosetta, a teenage girl (Émilie Dequenne) is in desperate, tireless pursuit of a decent job to escape her alcoholic mother. In The Son/L'Enfant, a carpentry teacher (Gourmet again) pursues the boy who killed his son, with ambivalent motive but a final moving shift toward forgiveness. In The Child (Renier again) a young man seeks to sell his own baby, but comes to see the wrong of this desperate and ignorant act. Lorna's Silence is far more complicated, but involves the protagonist's desperate struggle to open her own business The Kid with the Bike, starring another young discovery, young firecracker Thomas Doret, with the luminous Cécile de France, follows a boy's desperate (and useless) effort to reunite with his father (Renier, grown up now), who has abandoned him.

The Dardennes used a big star, Marion Cotillard, for Two Days, One Night, typically about a desperate pursuit during the allotted time in the title to persuade a group of coworkers to vote against a bonus so she can be allowed back to work after a nervous breakdown. It's a dogged, exhausting story, but an actress as good and as appealing as Cotillard and a suspenseful plot, it holds our attention till the last.

The Unknown Girl/La fille inconnue is typical Dardennes material. But both because of the theme and the lead actress, despite attentive craftsmanship to every scene, the whole film feels less involving or moving. It's about young Liège general practitioner Jenny Davin Adèle Haenel), who attempts to uncover the identity of a would-be patient who has died after she has ignored her desperate effort to be admitted after hours. This is a task not involving moral development so much as perhaps an act of penance, and relief of a guilty conscience. Adèle Haenel has shone in dry, feisty roles, and that aspect is tamped down here, but she lives up to expectations: convincing as the businesslike young doctor, she is relatable, if not adorable, and Jenny achieves her goal. She has the necessary convincing dedication and tireless intensity. But as written, the character does not significantly change.

The story is neatly told; one scene rapidly follows another. And yet, since Jenny is juggling doctoring with crime investigating, the narrative proceeds unevenly. Sometimes it's hard to see if she is doing her job as a doctor, or pretending to as an excuse to contact various people and press them for details of the unidentified woman, showing her photo on her smart phone. The latter was African, a prostitute, connected with drug dealers, and so Jenny winds up sticking her nose into places where she isn't welcome. The film starts to seem like a police procedural conducted ay an amateur - without the suspense such tales normally involve. The cops even approach Jenny at one point to tell her she's marring their process by spooking potential sources. And then there is the case of Julien (newcomer Olivier Bonnaud), an intern working with Jenny whom she pursues with equal doggedness after a child having an epileptic fit apparently shocks him so much he decides to give up training in medicine. She even goes to see him out home in the country to have a heart-to-heart talk. It apparently succeeds, she learns from a phone call. However involving, this story seems tacked on. As has happened sometimes before, this is an unmistakable Dardennes film, but not one that shakes you to the core as the best ones do.

The Unknown Girl/La fille inconnue, 113 mins., debuted at Cannes in competition May 2016; 13 other festivals; French theatrical release 12 Oct. 2016, also included in the main slate of the New York Film Festival; US premiere that day. French critical response mild (AlloCiné press rating 3.2/30). Screened 23 Oct. 2016 at UGC Odéon, Paris.

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