Confessing all the secret things in the warm velvet box
To the priest—he’s the doctor—he can handle the shocks
—Peter Gabriel, “Mercy Street”
You can talk to me. I’m your doctor.”
Dr. Jenny Davin speaks this sentence, or some variant of it, several times in the course of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl. And people do talk. They talk to the young Dr. Davin even though she is not an especially skilled counselor. She mostly just tells people to do things, or asks whether they’ve done the things she told them to do last time. But people respond to her role—and, crucially, its promise of doctor-patient confidentiality—more than to her particular character or personality. And the Dardenne brothers, Belgian filmmakers who specialize in naturalistic dramas with a deep spiritual core, show us a world where guilty people are desperate for the freedom that comes from confession.
Dr. Davin is one of these guilty people herself. As played by Adèle Haenel, she is slight but fierce, focused, with her full lips tense and downturned: neither a pushover nor a cold fish.
When we first see her, she’s training Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), an intern even younger than she is. “Listen,” she commands in the movie’s first line of dialogue, holding her stethoscope to a patient’s bare back.
Almost immediately after this we see the first of many sins of omission. Julien sees a child having a seizure in the waiting room, and freezes instead of helping the patient. This irritates Dr. Davin, who lectures him about not letting his emotions run away with him. As they’re finishing the paperwork, long after the clinic’s closing time, someone rings the doorbell. Dr. Davin won’t let Julien open up. She notes that if it’s really urgent the bell will ring again; it doesn’t. Julien storms out, and Dr. Davin goes to the party celebrating her promotion: She’s leaving the low-income clinic and heading to a prestigious practice in Liège. Just another day at the office.
But the next day the police arrive. The person at the door was a young woman who has been found dead on a concrete embankment, possibly as the result of foul play. She has no ID and nobody seems to have seen anything that would indicate what happened or who she was. The police need the surveillance video from the clinic.
Nobody blames Dr. Davin for not opening the door: “It’s normal not to open at that hour”; “You’re not the one who killed her.” But Jenny judges herself by a different standard—because she knows her own heart, and she knows what it is to be a doctor. As Proverbs 3:28 says, “Say not to your neighbor, ‘Go, come back tomorrow, and I will give it to you,’ when all the while you have it.” Everybody offers her excuses, when what she needs is absolution. And absolution requires the acknowledgment of guilt.
The rest of the film is Dr. Davin’s quest to find out the name of the “unknown girl.” Her only tools are her inherent toughness (men threaten her more than once, and though she’s badly shaken, she doesn’t back down)—and her role as doctor. At no point in the film does she ever wear any kind of uniform. There’s no white coat, no stethoscope around her neck. She dresses in jeans and solid-color sweaters. But medicine is her vocation, a calling she allows to transform her life. Because she is a doctor she becomes a social worker, making calls so that a poor patient won’t have his gas cut off. Because she is a doctor she becomes a detective, following leads so doggedly that the real police have to warn her to step off.
Above all, because she is a doctor she becomes a confessor. Again and again people reveal their sins to her—most often sins of omission, as well as sins of motivation. Jenny confesses her own bad motives for that initial, disastrous refusal to open the door; Julien confesses the real reason he didn’t help the convulsing child, as Jenny tries to restore his faith and recall him to his vocation as a doctor. The Unknown Girl is startlingly blunt in its insistence that we are prisoners of even our seemingly-trivial misdeeds, and confession is the only key that will open the cell. By the end of the film we have moved from psychological naturalism into something closer to parable: There is no reason for the film’s final confession to happen, except that full confession is so desperately needed by every single person Dr. Davin encounters, and she is the one with the vocation to listen to them.
The danger with any psychological portrayal of a spiritual reality is that it will make God seem irrelevant. The characters may receive catharsis rather than absolution; a battery-powered peace of mind, rather than unearned intervention from above. The Unknown Girl avoids this danger. Its climax requires an accident—or act of mercy—in which no human being had a hand.
The Unknown Girl may seem to meander in its midsection, but by the end it is gripping on every level. It’s a whodunnit complete with car chase. It’s a character study of a woman learning what her vocation will really demand of her. It’s a portrait of a community, impoverished and divided, whose only common link is the doctor. And it’s a portrayal of guilt, shame, and deliverance as rich and memorable as any I’ve seen.
Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker living in Washington, D.C.