Not really a thriller and not even a social drama: The Dardenne Brothers’ The Unknown Girl

Nadège Lourme is PhD Candidate at the University of Trondheim (NTNU).


The Unknown Girl, the new tense and moving opus of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, is not really a thriller and not even a social drama. It is a story of a quest, a story of a name, which embarks us a little further into what the Belgian filmmakers have sought to grasp throughout their films: the moment where one welcomes or rejects her own humanity.

Jenny Davan (Adèle Haenel) is a general practitioner who has temporary taken over the public practice of a confrere who is retiring for health reasons. The practice, which welcomes mostly low-income welfare patients, is situated in Seraing near Liège in an industrial area close to the Meuse River.

One day a boy has an epileptic seizure in the waiting room and while Jenny promptly finds the gestures to help him, her intern-pupil, Julien, becomes paralyzed and cannot manage to do what he has been asked. Later, one hour after closing time, Jenny explains to him that to make a good practitioner, he has to be stronger than his emotions. Then, the buzzer of the outer door rings and Jenny, who wants to make her point, instructs Julien not to open the door. The practice is closed and, according to her, a patient, who comes so late, doesn’t respect their tiredness.

It is with this simple refusal that The Unknown Girl, the ninth opus of the second wave of the Dardenne’s filmography, really begins. It is with this quick decision motivated by a mix of arrogance, irritation and fatigue that Jenny’s life will suddenly turn upside-down.

The person she didn’t let in is found dead the day after on the banks of the Meuse, right on the opposite site of the freeway, which borders the practice. An opened door is the primordial symbol of hospitality and when it is kept closed, it raises the question of the welcome of the stranger. When we learn that the dead person is a young immigrant woman without identification papers, we find ourselves confronted with a theme that is highly topical.

Nevertheless, the film is not about illegal immigration or any of the other social issues it seems to approach. Since the second wave of their career, the films of the Belgian directors deal with the trajectories of individuals living precarious and marginal lives, caught in the realm in crisis of a post-industrial society and globalized world. In this regard, their cinema has often been characterized as “social cinema” or “social realism”. Yet, those labels have often overshadowed the ethical dimension that underlies all their films since The Promise (1996).

From The Promise to The Unknown Girl (2016), the Dardenne brothers have developed an elaborate and distinctive style, underpinned by specific technical and aesthetical choices. Their style, which is recognizable from film to film, has nevertheless changed through small differences and nuances in order to serve the main purpose of their cinematic work: to make appear the moment where one assumes or denies his humanity as well as that of the other; to capture “the human gaze, the one within which we can read simultaneously the desire of killing and its interdiction…” (Dardenne 1999:16)

Indeed, if the characters are primarily people struggling with illegal immigration, unemployment, poverty and social disintegration, it is also because the harsh reality they are facing confronts them with difficult choices that also question their own humanity. Trying to escape their misery, they find themselves having to choose between helping someone or ignoring her, killing or resisting temptation, in sum, facing their responsibility over others’ humanity or staying blind.

«Rosetta» (1999).

With The Unknown Girl the Dardenne brothers renew their ethical perspective. Jenny is not like Rosetta (Rosetta, 1999) or Lorna (Lorna’s Silence, 2008); she does not have to struggle to survive. She has accepted a job at a private elite clinic in Liège and seems promised to a brilliant career. She is not guilty of or tempted by murder or theft. She has just been guilty of arrogance without conceiving the consequences to which her vanity might lead. Jenny appears to be a patient, respectful, attentive and dedicated practitioner. The way several of her patients meet her, by for instance expressing gratitude with small gestures (making a song for her, giving her food, sharing a cup of coffee with her), indicates that she has nurtured such qualities even before the dramatic event she will deal with.

Jenny, who has dedicated her life to the care of others, has failed to respond to the appeal of another. By telling her story, The Unknown Girl reveals the difficulty to recognize the other in his needs. The film underscores that the kind of responsibility we have towards fellow human beings needs to constantly be redone. It also echoes, in an original and vivid way, perspectives we can find in the philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas.

Lévinas is probably the thinker who has had the most impact on the work of the Belgian brothers. (Luc Dardenne has followed his courses at the University of Louvain and is a close reader of his texts.) His ethical thought has been an ongoing source of inspiration for the filmmakers. Yet, their cinema is not a visual and mechanical translation of the philosopher’s ethics: «If there is a bound [between the two], it is enigmatic and very internal». Some Levinasian ethical reflections surface in the work of the brothers from The Promise to The Unknown Girl, not as an illustration or mise-en-scène of his philosophy, but rather as a question to which, by fumble in the darkness of both the movie theater and his heart, the spectator has to answer.

If each film that belong to the second stage of the Dardenne’s career can be seen as an attempt to dialog with the philosophy of Lévinas, which one is The Unknown Girl? The whole film is about the mission Jenny has given to herself: to find the name of the dead woman. Her search allows her to recall what Lévinas would have called the ethical face of the woman. I would like to track Jenny’s pathway but, before doing so, a short detour through the Levinasian philosophy is necessary.

By beginning with a door kept closed, the film reframes the philosophy of Emmanuel Lévinas, through the concept of hospitality developed by the philosopher Jacques Derrida. In Adieu (1997), Derrida distinguishes between a conditional and unconditional hospitality. While the conditional hospitality refers to an invitation by defining the way we permit others to enter into our home according to practices and conventions, the unconditional one is a visitation, which brings with itself a radical surprise (Derrida 1999:62).

This absolute hospitality is without reciprocity and exchange. Nothing is asked the stranger of the visitation, not even his name or where he comes from. He has to be accepted in his very indetermination. To invite him to steep into our home is to accept the possibility to be dominated, to accept the menace he might bear with him, the eventuality that he might impose his law at our place. According to Derrida, if Totality and Infinity, one of the major works of Lévinas, doesn’t frequently use or point out the concept of hospitality, the text conveys “an immense treatise of hospitality” (Derrida 1999:21).

Without reducing the hospitality to an ethics, Derrida thinks anew the notion through the philosophy of Lévinas, especially his approach of the face. To welcome the other is to let her radical alterity inhabit me, to let her face surprise me. In this regard, Derrida underlines that the figure of the door appearing one time in Totality and Infinity is not only “a manner of speaking”. The open door “calls for the opening of an exteriority or of a transcendence of the idea of infinity” (ibid: 26). It is an opening where my reason receives, in a relation before relation, a passivity before passivity, the absolute exteriority of the other, i. e. his face.

Lévinas aims to restitute to ethics its place as first philosophy. Ethics is neither a particular branch of philosophy nor a moral philosophy. Ethics is beyond philosophy. To ethically meet the other is to encounter, according to Lévinas, his face. The concept Lévinas refers to here does not correspond to the anatomic body part the word face usually designates; it is not the collection of physical features through which we are able to identify others. Rather, it defines the call of the other that urges me to take responsibility for her and respond to her before anything else.

The encounter with the face happens beyond visual perception. It is the experience of an absolute asymmetrical relation where the other burdens me with his appeal. Before I can even grasp how it looks like and to whom it belongs, the face commands me: You shall not kill! At the same time I feel the absolute weakness of the other, i.e. as someone I can kill, I face a primary an inescapable responsibility where I am obliged to respond to the other’s need and misery. The nudity and weakness of the other does not refer here to a concrete physical and psychological suffering. To ethically meet the face of the other is to respond to her as she was “the poor, the stranger, the widow and the orphan” (Lévinas 1961, 1990:229). This intrinsic and absolute vulnerability is the burden of every human being, even of the richest and healthiest man and woman.

Before appearing in a vision, before being that person with those hairs, eyes and this identity, the face of the other is, according to Lévinas, a primary and inevitable appeal. Before even knowing that she is a young woman and how she looks like, Jenny “hears”, as she would admit later to the two police inspectors, her call that manifests itself through the ringing of the interphone. This sound is not just like the one of any intercom or doorbell. It is the one of a medical practice and, in this regard, intrinsically bears with itself the possibility to be the call of a patient, i.e., in the etymological sense of the term, of “one who suffers”. The face, as Lévinas conceives it, is an imperative demand that is not so much seen but rather listened:

“The other who manifests himself in the face pierces, in a way, his own plastic essence, like a being who opens the window where, nevertheless, his face is already traced. His manifestation is a surplus on the inevitable paralysis of the manifestation. This is what we describe with the words: the face speaks. The manifestation of the face is the first discourse. Speaking is first and foremost this way of coming from behind one’s appearance, behind one’s form; an opening in the opening.” (Lévinas 1972, 2003:31).

Yet, Jenny didn’t respond. She heard but didn’t listen. If she cannot undo what has been done, she can come back, in a way, to the very moment where she missed and failed to help the young woman, through what is left of her, images, and renew her ability to welcome the ethical face of others.

Jenny gave to the inspectors Ben Mahmoud and Bercaro the video of the practice’s camera surveillance corresponding to the night the young woman has been found dead. At the police station, after she acknowledges that the dead woman was the one who rang at her door, the police officers show her the images twice. Jenny keeps a picture from the video on her mobile; a picture of the woman “right before she rang at the interphone” as Jenny explains later to Julien. Because she wants to find the name of the unknown woman in order not to let her be anonymously buried, Jenny will show this picture to people she meets, mostly her patients, and ask them if they know her. By doing so, she will both gain back her capacity to listen and readjust the gaze of others.

Jenny is a listener. The first time we see her, as the film begins, she is using a stethoscope. The first word she pronounces is “Listen!” The film’s opening shot presents what Jenny will seek to do during her quest. Some of the patients she treats are sick (stomach ache, back pain) of words that cannot be uttered. Jenny gives birth to those words by listening to their somatizing bodies with her instrument and her hands (taking a pulse, examining eyes). She never judges others’ actions. She doesn’t adopt a dominant position over people she relates to but meets them as her equals.

The mise-en-scène of the brothers lets this aspect appear quite literally. Jenny often places herself at the same level of the persons she interacts with. If they sit, she sits down. If one lies down, she does so. When one of them, trying to confess his crime, asks her to not look at him, she turns around. When later, sitting, he commands her not to look at him from above, she grabs a rolling stool, sits at his side and underlines her own culpability. Those patients, with the help she provides almost unconsciously and often against their own will, can finally really face the dead woman they have disregarded and, for one of them, pushed to death.

Her ability to listen liberates a parole but also readjusts a gaze. When Jenny watches for a second time the video with the unidentified woman on it, the inspector Ben Mahmoud asks his colleague to zoom in on the face of the woman and to freeze the image when she looks at them. The picture at which Jenny asks people she meets to look is the same. It is not a face they look at, but a face that looks at them. Images, which have been reframed and refocused through the intercession of Jenny, are charged with an ethical power. Jenny’s enquiry echoes the very gesture of the Dardenne brothers reframing faces in order to confront the spectator with the inescapable demand human beings require from each other. Yet, if the Belgian directors want, in a way, to approach the face as an ethics, as Lévinas defines it, they must engage their cinema with the unrepresentability of Levinasian face.

Indeed, the face, as the philosopher conceives it, cannot be grasped in the vision. It goes beyond its own physiognomy. We don’t meet the face through a perceptual experience but rather through what Lévinas calls “the epiphany of the face”, an alterity that transcends the sensible. Yet, the inescapable demand to which the other’s face commands me to respond can only occur in face-to-face encounters. If “the perception de-face the other” (Lévinas 1995:133), it is because it already singles out a picture of him through which the perceiver assimilates him; makes him his own. A representation of the face, even an artistic one, reiterates per se this kind of reduction. An image can hardly make present the infinite ethical dimension of the face. By annihilating its uniqueness, it might miss it.

To encounter the ethical face, in Lévinas’ view, has to be experienced both in face-to-face relationships and beyond perception. Following the reflection of the philosopher, images and representations seem to be unable to restitute the face in its ethical dimension. How then can cinema provoke an encounter with the face as an ethics? Luc Dardenne is aware of the aporia: “Be careful: the ethical appearance of the image [is] simultaneously and in conflict with its aesthetical one” (Dardenne 2005, 2008:8). The film directors have tried, both against and with images, to make possible the emergence of the face as ethical. The Unknown Girl both reiterates and renews this attempt.

«The Kid and the Bike» (2011).

If there is only one person whose appeal should have been heard, it is definitely the unknown woman. If there is only one face that should have not been ignored, it is hers. Now, we see the face of the unknown woman only once, very briefly, when Jenny and the inspectors visualize the video of the camera surveillance. When Jenny will show her to others, we won’t see it. The ethical face of the woman doesn’t appear to us through the manifestation of her physical one. Yet, she is always present through Jenny and seems to guide each of her actions. As Jenny says once: “She is all the time in my head too.”

Each time we hear the practice’s interphone or Jenny’s mobile ringing, it does not feel like any ringtone, well integrates in the narrative background. It is susceptible to be the call of a patient who needs care or/and, at the same time, of someone who can help her in her search. (Phones and intercoms concretize also a demand in The Kid with a Bike and Two Days, One Night. Sandra, the main character of the later, who asks her colleagues for help by ringing at their door or calling them, appears retrospectively as the inverted figure of Jenny, the one who stands on the other side of the door.)

The phone and intercom ringtones seem to be the echo of the first time we heard the door buzzer. It seems to materialize the appeal of the unknown woman, which indefinitely repeats itself. The ethical face of the unknown girl haunts another face: Jenny’s one. By making Jenny’s face the host of the girl’s face, i.e. the one who welcomes the other and becomes her hostage at the same time (Derrida 2000:125), the Belgian filmmakers let the ethical face happen between the facial features of Jenny, let us perceive the face of Jenny as an ethics through and against his very face.

Cinematic images can be imprisoned by a style, by a form that aestheticizes what they show. Because a style is necessarily “a caricature” and “a reproduction of itself”, the Dardenne brothers want to create “a cinema without a style” even if the apparition of images on a screen already allows, inevitably, the emerge of a form (ibid. 26). They want characters played by actors who don’t bring along with them the memories of other images on which they have been seen before: “to step outside the cinematic reproduction begins with not making the bodies used by this reproduction reappear. To find other bodies” (ibid. 72).

For several of the actors, the first time they played in a Dardenne’s film, was also their first role: Émilie Dequenne, Jérémie Renier, Déborah François, Thomas Doret etc. When the main character is played by a well-known professional actor as Adèle Haenel, tentative to escape the resurgence of stereotypical or photogenic images of their bodies and especially of their faces, becomes even more urgent: “Against the pictures (regardless of the quality of the actor’s or actress’ performance) which do not manage to break down the image already seen and known by the spectator, the image of the face which smiles, which is afraid, which is absorbed, etc.” (ibid. 129). (The film directors have also broken their own rule by casting Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night and Cécile de France in the The Kid with a Bike.)

To do so, the brothers’ camera does not make portraits of their characters. If the camera follows them closely, it never tries to circumscribe their faces. Even when they appear in closer shot as Rosetta and Olivier (The Son, 2002), they are always moving and not given in a front view. We rather see a profile or a detail: the thick glasses of Olivier, one of Rosetta red cheeks (Rosetta, 1999). Lévinas, by underlining the distinction between the physical face and the ethical one, explains that the ethical face can also be found, perhaps even more easily, on other body parts. The whole body can be a face (Lévinas, 1995:133). The very fragility of a human being, which engages my own responsibility, can be revealed by his hands or his shoulders.

The Belgian brothers, by trying to escape the pitfall of the photogenic, narrative and stereotypical face that risks to conceal the ethical one, seek to find the ethic elsewhere. The face as an ethics becomes the tense silhouette of Cyril (The Kid with a Bike, 2011), the tiny and short pony tail of Sandra (Two Days, One Night, 2004), or the back and the neck of Olivier: “About the back of Olivier, it seems to me possible to see it as a face, as if this back, this neck speaks to us.” (Dardenne 1999:129). Olivier’s back becomes an appeal directed towards us: “I am looking at his back moving about on the floor of his apartment and I can help to see a prayer, an appeal addressed to someone, to another. Perhaps to you, spectator” (Dardenne 2015:13).

From The Kid with a Bike (2011), the Dardenne’s camera takes a few steps back from the characters and with The Unknown Girl, it is, as well as Jenny, more composed, less hustled. The spectator is more able to take a closer look at her face. Nevertheless, it stays mute and its expressions resist each attempt to be linked to any kid of psychological state. We might call on the feelings of remorse and culpability to justify Jenny’s obstinacy in finding the name of the dead woman. Yet, we know nothing about her private life or her past, which would enlighten her actions. They don’t seem to be the result of balanced choices but the result of a movement that bear her towards, a movement that the camera witnesses without knowing where it comes from or where it goes; a movement of which we discover the very appearing.

About several pictures made by Paul Klee, Luc Dardenne has the feeling that the line of the drawings “seems to be found at the same time that it finds a form in the process of becoming without knowing it”, and expresses the wish that “this impression could be the one of the spectator watching [their] films” (ibid. 96) When watching The Unknown Girl, as other films of the Dardenne, the spectator is unable to make hypothesis about the course of the actions. Even if the film is built as a thriller, we don’t really find ourselves in the position of the suspense movies’ viewer who tries to anticipate what the next images will show.

Thinking of The Promise, Luc writes: “Beyond the techniques producing suspense, [we have] to find the pure tension. The invisible kernel irradiates and we don’t know what this irradiation is going to produce and when it’s going to happen. We are not really expecting something qualifiable, we are not in the gap, which activates the desire to see, to know what is going on behind the door. We are inside, we are in the door, in the knot” (Dardenne 1999:22).

The Unknown Girl does not let itself perceive as the creator of reality’s intrinsic logic. The camera seems more to break into a reality, the life of Jenny, which was already there before it and will still be there after. When the film starts and ends she is at work in a middle of an action and several film sequences begin and end in the same way. One scene is also, in this regard, insightful. We know it is Jenny’s last day at the practice and that she will soon start at a private clinic. Jenny visits dr. Habran, the retired practitioner she has replaced in three months. He asks her to hang a notice at the Medicine faculty in a last attempt to find another doctor to take over the practice before it closes for good. She agrees to do it but, a short moment later, something changes in her face and she announces that she will take it over. Her decision surprises Habran, as well as herself and us. (We find several scenes in Dardennes filmography where the actions of the main character seem to arise without reasons: With Lorna [Lorna’s Silence] when she takes off her clothes and makes love with Claudy [Dardenne 2015:88], when she throws herself in the gynecologist’s arms [Dardenne 2015:58]; with Cyril [The Kid with a Bike] when he embraces Samantha without knowing her.)

The mise-en-scene and the eye of the film never reveal the interiority of Jenny. By staying only at the surface of her body, the camera, instead of tracking the meanders of her self, rebounds on her face and is sent somewhere else. It does not mean that Jenny lacks expressivity or that the actress who plays her, Adèle Haenel, makes a mask of her face. Her performance might be retained but is nuanced and right. Rather, facing Jenny we watch a face facing others, a face turned towards someone else.

As mentioned above, Jenny is not seen in extreme close-up or close-up such as, for instance, Rosetta. She often inhabits a frame with someone else because her face is a face that speaks to, listens to, directs itself towards another face. By doing so, it seeks to respond a posteriori to the face of the dead woman. By doing so, her faces is never a locus where our gaze can rest, it cannot be a form that recovers the primacy of the ethical demand that it also carries.

Watching the last moments of The Unknown Girl, I recall the words Rosetta tells herself at Riquet’s place, one night before falling to sleep: “Your name is Rosetta, my name is Rosetta. You found a job. I found a job. You’ve got a friend. I’ve got a friend. You have a normal life. I have a normal life. You won’t fall in the rut. I won’t fall in the rut. Good night. Good night.”

With her childlike monolog, she tries to conjure the anguish that the fear of social disintegration arouses in her. To summon her name is a way to not disappear. Jenny has invoked a name as well. Not a name like the ones we inscribe on a door’s silvery nameplate. But a name like the one only a mother can pronounce in order to guide her son out of the darkness of a seizure; a name brought back from obscurity.

Your name was Félicie Koumba.



Dardenne L. (1999), Au dos de nos images (1991-2005), éd. du Seuil, Paris.

Dardenne L. (2015), Au dos de nos images II (2005-2014), éd. du Seuil, Paris.

Derrida J. (1999), Adieu, to Emmanuel Levinas, Standford University Press, California.

Derrida J. (2000), Of Hospitality, Standford University Press, California.

Lévinas E. (1995) Altérité et transcendance, Fata Morgana, Paris.

Lévinas E. (1996) Totalité et Infini, Essai sur l’extériorité, Kluwer Academic, Paris.

Lévinas E. (2003) Humanism of the Other, University of Illinois Press, Chicago.

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