Doctor Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel) is about to take over the practice in this harbour town from an older, much-respected doctor who is now retiring, yet she considers a more lucrative offer. Though almost fresh out of medical school, she feels she has the experience necessary to assist this community, and she is tutoring a student, Julien (Olivier Bonnaud), in the ways of the practice, though she is getting a little too big for her boots in ordering him around, particularly after a small child has a fit in the waiting room and Julien just stands there, unable to help because he is paralysed with fear. She is annoyed about this, and that evening when they are about to leave the doorbell rings and she sharply tells him to ignore it - if it was urgent the person would have rung twice. She will live to regret this decision...
The Unknown Girl, or La fille inconnue as it was originally known, slotted into the pattern of being a film the Dardenne Brothers had prepared for the Cannes Film Festival, it went into competition, it was nominated... but oh dear, what was this? For some reason it was decided their work here had been in the shadow of what they had presented before, and lacking in the comparison; not helping was that this was their apparent attempt at crafting a thriller using their accustomed ultra-realistic techniques, and the opinion was they had stumbled in straying into genre territory. But it was not as if they had included a high-octane car chase (there nearly was one, but it was not exactly Bullitt) or a bout of martial arts combat (there was fighting, but it was not exactly Enter the Dragon).
The plot set out an investigation when Doctor Jenny realises that ring at the door was from a young girl who genuinely needed help, but there's nothing anyone can do for her now as the next morning she is found dead near the surgery, the victim of a blow to the head. The guilt Jenny feels is overwhelming, and she seriously begins to question her entire motivation for joining the medical profession, precisely what Julien does as well, only he takes it as far as leaving the town behind to live in his home village in Belgium, and that does our heroine's peace of mind no good whatsoever. She tries to coax Julien back, seemingly believing if she can make him return then all will be well once more, but it is plain to see she will have to go further.
Although the police have been involved, they cannot do anything more with the evidence they have, so will be burying the body of the doorbell ringer without a name to put to her, she is utterly anonymous and that is haunting Jenny terribly. She feels responsible, even though it should be noted the victim didn't hang around to see if anyone answered the door, according to the security camera footage, but nobody else is giving a stuff about the deceased: even the cops are washing their hands of yet another immigrant without any identification, therefore she might as well have never existed. You can understand this was quite a dilemma the Dardennes were pinning on their protagonist, and by extension a society that allows people to fall between the cracks without anyone caring that they were in the world and in need of compassion.
Maybe in that atmosphere in Europe of the indigenous population losing patience with refugees when solutions to the masses of the displaced were thin on the ground and problems were being thrown up by nobody being able to cope with them, but The Unknown Girl, while it should have been topical, and was, was not what audiences wanted to hear about in cinema right then. But while this film did little else than tug on the heartstrings as far as that issue went, the complaints about its thriller delivery were unfair, as the directors' approach with its slavish drive for the utmost in realism actually generated some genuinely alarming scenes as you worried for Jenny and her place in a world that could allow a young girl to die without anyone but her caring. That sort of tension was about it as far as thrills went, but there was enough of it to pay off in the narrative, for what would a suspense movie be if you were not concerned, fearful even, for the plight of the main character? Haenel portrayed her usual earnest reading, but she was so adept at that by this stage that you could not envisage another actress in the role, not even Marion Cotillard who was the original star. Worth taking a chance on.