Between 1996 and 2005, Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne made four uniformly masterful films, all updating the moral and aesthetic principles of Italian neorealism to contemporary cultural and socioeconomic concerns. Films like Rosetta and L'Enfant are masterpieces because they come upon their empathy and their distinctly humanist messages without the slightest sign of calculation. These films are quintessentially character pieces: The Dardennes' over-the-shoulder camera technique has become a kind of shorthand in European cinema for self-conscious attempts to create the visceral experience of a given, usually lower-class environment, but for the brothers it always tethered us to understandings of specific characters' emotions. In recent years, though, the Dardennes have swapped their organic style for a more clinical and mannered one, and the results have tended to show the schematics of a formula that had always been so well concealed.
The fourth film of this new cycle that began with 2008's Lorna's Silence, The Unknown Girl is, like 2014's Two Days, One Night, a kind of procedural. It involves a doctor (Adèle Haenel) who makes the entirely reasonable decision not to answer her door for a patient over an hour after her office has closed and feels irrevocably haunted by the subsequent murder of the young, unidentifiable woman. For the Dardennes, this is typical moral-message territory, which they approach too deliberately: In a scene just before the murder, the doctor lectures her assistant on wanting to open the door, warning, “Don't let patients tire you or you won't make a proper diagnosis.” The film reckons with that advice, as the doctor takes on the task the police seem ineffective at completing, conducting an investigation of the people the murdered girl was last seen with and the places that they were seen at.
The strengths of a proper mystery film prove to be outside the filmmakers' command, as The Unknown Girl proceeds dutifully, resolving its case as expected, with only some diverting character work from Dardenne regulars like Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet, both in minor roles, to give the proceedings some dramatic energy. There are moments, like a young man's offhand comment that essentially solves the whole crime about 30 minutes before the guilty party's confession, or another character's sudden act of desperate violence when the doctor doesn't take a threat seriously, that lend the film some of the spontaneity that their recent, deliberately structured work has been lacking. But even these beats feel a bit recycled from their better films—and when the final scene here tries for a moving grace note and comes off instead like the most sentimentalized moment in any Dardennes film to date, The Unknown Girl starts to seem like their weakest.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 11—22.