There’s no such thing as fame, only celebrity in select circles. For people into, say, Montana state politics, meeting Democratic senator Jon Tester would inspire starstruck stammering and hand tremors, but to the vast majority of other people in the world, he’s just the guy who makes the laws ensuring that steers retain their inalienable rights. Even figures widely held in A-list esteem have their limits; some people simply “don’t watch movies,” bless their little hearts, and may respond to a passing mention of Brad Pitt or Natalie Portman with a blank, mildly annoyed stare. The odd phenomenon of non-fame fame has crystallized most clearly in the world of social media, where good-looking people that the non-teen population of the world have never heard of command a daily audience of millions.
But the highly relative dimension of public prominence also defines the Cannes Film Festival, an insular bubble of cinephilia where talents of world cinema that can’t cobble together a million-dollar gross in the U.S. are treated like lesser deities. As mentioned previously, projects boasting bigger-name actors tend to get the noisiest reception, but there was still a palpable excitement in the air prior to the press screenings of new works from brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, Hirokazu Kore-eda, and Xavier Dolan today. Maybe it’s just refreshing to be finally surrounded by people equally committed to films — all of them — or maybe the fatigue from this sleepless marathon of screenings and writing has made my brain soft, but either way, it was heartening to see films that will go largely unnoticed in America heralded as capital-“E” Events around these parts.
Watching The Unknown Girl, the eagerness for a new Dardennes bros. joint was instantly understandable. Their fragile, merciful Two Days, One Night was a smash at the festival in 2014 and went on to net its star Marion Cotillard an Academy Award nomination for her role as a woman begging her coworkers to take a pay cut so that she may keep her job. This new selection continues their streak of piercing compassion, keeping the focus on a woman on a mission of mercy barely able to contain the emotional tempest raging inside her.
Their newest heroine is Jenny Davin (played with great aplomb and powerful reserve by Adéle Haenel, now the eighth actress that could’ve been a shoo-in for awards gold in a weaker year), a doctor who sets about solving the murder of a would-be patient whom she refused to treat when the woman banged on the private practice’s doors after hours. Wracked with guilt, she tromps around town asking anyone who will listen if they recognize the woman’s photo. But she’s not pursuing justice. She has no intention of tracking down the killer, only hoping to learn the woman’s name so that she can provide a proper headstone and contact the family of the deceased. In the Dardennes’ world, the most precious commodity is dignity — always, dignity.
The murder-mystery structure may come off as schematic to some, but if the path the film travels appears well-trod, the stutter-steps it takes are anything but familiar. Suspense could not be a lower priority here, and the scenes that actively try to court it are the only bits that don’t quite work. (A moment in which a pair of crooks forcibly pull Jenny over to the side of the road and threaten bodily harm if she continues with her junior sleuthing rings false, as if it’s been spliced in from a different, far more typical sort of film.) The dramatic propulsion comes not from the advancement of the plot, but Jenny’s slow, reluctant acceptance that there are people in this world she cannot save.
Even after she advises her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) that a good doctor must necessarily compartmentalize their feelings from work, she allows her feelings to drive her to the brink of collapse. Not only does the search for the woman’s identity place Jenny in harm’s way, but her constant attempts to get Julien to rejoin her practice after he quits further reinforce that she cannot, and should not, hold herself responsible for everyone’s well-being. The mystery giving the film shape might be common, but the moral conclusions that it draws map out uncharted emotional territory.