Paving the way for acteurism, the great critic Boyd McDonald, in a 1984 hymn to Richard Widmark, said that the performer "demonstrates the importance of the movie star over the movie and thus the importance of star reviews over mere movie reviews, with their constant complaints about plot." I have many complaints about The Unknown Girl, the latest study of secular sainthood by the Dardenne brothers, whose austere films have increasingly become gear-grinding exercises in uplift. But Adele Haenel, the phenomenal actress who appears in nearly every frame of the movie proves McDonald's epigram.
Haenel plays Jenny Davin, a stalwart physician driven to uncover the circumstances surrounding a Gabonese immigrant's death, Jenny's guilty conscience motors this monomaniacal quest: After a long day at the clinic and eager to leave, the doctor tells her intern not to answer the door; the young woman who buzzed will soon be found dead at a construction site. When not auscultating or applying bandages to a diabetic patient's foot, Jenny becomes a P.I., showing a surveillance-camera photo of the deceased to house-call patients, cybercafe habitues, nursing-home residents. With each encounter, the narrative is advanced by histrionic outbursts, bizarre reversals, ludicrous confessions -- the stuff of creaky melodrama, a genre that also sunk the Dardennes' previous movie, Two Days, One Night (2014). But as we watch Haenel -- whose piercing gaze is only one aspect of her luminosity -- stride through these overdetermined scenes, clutching a medical bag to her side, we are reminded that even the most timeworn of conventions can be made electric and alive.