The Unknown Girl dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Dr. Jenny Davin (two-time César winner Adèle Haenel) is, in some measure, a throwback to the romantic idea of a country doctor. She runs a public health clinic in her city of Seraing, where she treats everyone from babies to emphysemic senior citizens, making house calls and keeping her mobile phone turned on at all hours of the week. Though she has only been running this clinic for three months, her patients learn to trust and confide in her. Her promising intern, Julien, quits his internship close to its completion, and she takes time out of her busy day to encourage him to complete his training, knowing he will be an excellent doctor. But this is no idyllic countryside where she practices; it is a hard-working metropolis where there are strata of recovering drug addicts, illegal immigrants working dangerous jobs, and pensioners at the mercy of various systemic and systematic injustices. Dr. Davin, with her slightly detached but evident concern, is a hub of domestic and civic life in this city. She is the link between her patients and the social security office, the local hospital, and even the police. The directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who were born in Seraing, convey their intimate, easy familiarity with the city and, even as they show the seamier aspects of urban life,  convey an affection for its small town ways (there are two charming and poignant scenes involving gauffres and pannetone).

However, even the young and energetic doctor cannot help everyone. When Dr. Davin is indirectly implicated in the death of the Unknown Girl of the film title, she springs into action, trying to help the police with her own detecting. She tries to track down, not the killer, but the girl’s name, her identity. She cannot bear the thought of this young girl being buried without a name and without her family. Between appointments, she interviews patients, neighbors, students and colleagues with a fearlessness which feels both irresponsible and heroic. Unsurprisingly, her attempts to do her own detecting compromise her medical ethics as well as her physical safety.

How responsible are we for our community? What are the limitations, the boundaries of helping others who are not our family or friends? Dr. Davin feels guilty about her part in the girl’s death, but one also gets the sense that she thinks of this young girl as part of her community, as part of her flock. She defines her responsibility clearly – ensuring that the girl is not buried in a potter’s field – but everyone else sees it differently. The girl’s death dredges up the town’s secrets: family abuse, drug dealing, prostitution, and neglect. No-one wants to take responsibility for the unknown girl’s death, but no-one wants the doctor to do so, either. There is, they think, too much to lose. Though Dr. Davin helps to solve the mystery in the end, the ending is far from happy or complete. There is a sense that so much more is yet to be uncovered, and an uncomfortable feeling that helping a stranger may not always be the right thing to do.

La Fille Inconnue (The Unknown Girl), dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 113 min. Les Films du Fleuve, et al., 2016 In French.

The Unknown Girl played at the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival, 18 May through 11 June 2017.