It’s the first word of dialogue spoken in the Dardenne brothers’ The Unknown Girl, as Dr. Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel), stethoscope held to the back of a heavyset, older patient, presses her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) to diagnose the condition of the man, whose heavy breathing dominates an otherwise mostly silent opening shot.
Jenny will do a lot of listening in the drama that follows. First, though, will come a moment when she does not listen — the only time in the film she ignores a bid for her attention, but that one time hangs over the rest of the film as Jenny, a general practitioner at a modest urban clinic in Seraing, Belgium, finds herself increasingly consumed by the death of a teenaged African girl who may have been murdered.
Sooner or later, in every film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne over their 20-plus career as narrative filmmakers, the protagonist comes to such a turning point, a moral test on which everything turns. It may come early or late, and they may fail the test or pass it, but afterward nothing is the same.
Never before, though, has the moment been so mundane, so seemingly dramatically irrelevant, at least until the next day. The consequences are disproportionately devastating: Someone is dead instead of alive. There’s no way Jenny could have known, of course. Everyone assures her it’s not her fault.
But, by a capricious logic of moral obligation in chaotic systems, Jenny understands that she is implicated in this death and can’t disavow all responsibility. She had an excellent rationale for the choice she made; if only that rationale had been her real motive.
We can all think of any number of turning points in our lives in which we see after the fact how a trivially different past choice would have had utterly incommensurate and unpredictable effects, for better or for worse. If one hadn’t happened to go to a certain social event, one never would have met one’s future spouse — or the terrible accident never would have happened. You never know.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.