Updated: May 23, 2021
It is nigh on impossible to name more than a handful of famous Belgians so they say. The suggestion is clear: Belgian achievements are few and far between. Situated in the shadow of its more illustrious French and Dutch neighbours, nothing of much note has or could ever emerge from the country the EU calls home.
Having had the misfortune to sit through 'The Unknown Girl' I have to say there might be more than a little truth in accusations of Belgian blandness. You'd certainly need to search far and wide to find a film this dull, this lacking in even rudimentary dramatic qualities. Frankly, the Dardenne brothers' 2016 film is a long, tedious affair that offers little in the way of suspense, but much more in the way of apathy.
It all starts off rather promisingly. Having closed her surgery up for the evening, Dr Davin (Adèle Haenel) decides not to admit a person knocking on the surgery door after hours. The next day she discovers the person - a young African female - has been found dead near the surgery. Shocked and overcome with guilt, the young doctor sets out to solve the mystery of whodunit.
Then it's downhill all the way. Inexplicably, we are treated to a long line of patient-doctor consultations as the good doctor deals with all manner of afflictions: industrial wounds, callouses and rheumatism. This film really is this exciting. Throw in a young intern called Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) who struggles to string two words together and who Dr Davin randomly calls for no particular reason, and you have all the ingredients of a Belgian waffle of quite immense proportions.
Such is the frequency of the long, pregnant pauses and the deadliness of the dialogue which eventually follows, it's hard to tell if the cast are improvising or not. If this is naturalism, then you can jolly well keep it.
But the star performance is surely that of Mme Haenel. Being a doctor in Liege's version of Chicago must be a tough gig, but surely she could offer up a smile just once throughout this slog? The doctor-cum-sleuth does not change her expression during the entire film - not once! Indeed, her set grimace is perhaps the most abiding memory of this film. How does she manage it? Extraordinary.
Meanwhile the people come and go and Doctor Alabaster treats their bunyons. Riveting stuff. Let's just say that pace is not exactly this film's strong suit. Come to think of it neither is plot, or dialogue. And as for direction . . .
And so Dr Davin approaches various strangers flashing a photo of the deceased girl who turns out to have been a prostitute. Sherlock Holmes eat your heart out. Interestingly, we never see nor hear anything of a private life. The doctor is either up to her eyeballs in sutures or is walking aimlessly around Liege flashing her i-phone at bemused folk.
Anyway, finally it all comes to an end. There is a denouement - at least I think it's a denouement. A patient's father did it, though what I couldn't possibly tell you. By this point I had long since been planning how to clean out the garage. Oh and Julien does not manage to spark into anything at all that resembles life - in case you were wondering. Even the love interest has no interest in this movie.
The Dardennes apparently edited this film down to just under 100 minutes, which can only mean there was more of this! The mind boggles. Just imagine those editorial decisions: which diagnosis scene do we cut - Monsieur A's constipation or Madame B's irritable bowel? Tough call.
Sometimes it's better to let a terminally ill patient slip away, to switch off the life support machine at the right time. It's just a pity similar mercy could not have been applied to this. As a textbook example of how not to write, act and direct a film, The Unknown Girl is not however entirely without merit.