THE UNKNOWN GIRL (2017, La Fille Inconnue, France)

September 10, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. A nice story set-up is always welcome, and this one delivers a creative attention-grabber that draws us in pretty quickly. Brothers and long-time filmmaking collaborators Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne (TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT, THE KID WITH A BIKE) edited the film a bit after its Cannes screening, and the result is a quiet little whodunit with an interesting lead actress performance.

A doctor and her intern have a disagreement at closing time, and opt not to answer the clinic door when a young lady rings after hours. The doctor’s guilty conscience leads her to become obsessed with finding out the name of the lady when she turns up murdered the next morning. It’s passionate and amateur sleuthing at its most awkward, unconventional, and dangerous.

Dr Jenny Davin has recently accepted a post at the prestigious Kennedy Hospital, replacing a retiring doctor. The tragedy causes a change of mind on the job so that she may focus on the case and on continuing patient care through her clinic. The filmmakers initially wanted Marion Cotillard for the role (what filmmaker wouldn’t?), but Adele Haenel (LOVE AT FIRST FIGHT) brings her own approach, and though she doesn’t come across as the warmest person, it’s quite apparent that she is a dedicated doctor who cares very much for her patients. Even when she tells her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) that “a good doctor must control his emotions”, she is ever-stoic with her delivery.

The story is missing the usual Dardenne brothers’ twist, and instead, at its core is an ill-advised detective story and a case of morality, guilt, and the drive to do the right thing. The house calls and open communication with doctors will confound some U.S. viewers, but the various vignettes during Dr. Davin’s gumshoe work keep us engaged. The sub-plot with Dr. Davin reigniting intern Julien’s passion for medicine also maintains the minimalist approach and restrained performances … all with a very grounded approach with mostly handheld cameras.

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TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (Deux jours, une nuit, Belgium, 2014)

January 29, 2015

two days one night Greetings again from the darkness. The Dardenne Brothers (Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne) are filmmakers who excel at forcing us to take notice of human nature. This time they take the unusual step of working with an A-lister in Marion Cotillard, yet rather than create a distraction, this works for making the lead character even more realistic and believable.

Sandra (Ms. Cotillard) is a working class wife and mother who has gone through recovery after a bout with severe depression. She has been on leave from her factory job and now uses her Xanax as a crutch when she gets a little anxious. Just as it’s time for her to return to work, she learns her co-workers chose a bonus over allowing Sandra to keep her job, through some type of cruel vote facilitated by company management.

Sandra’s friend Juliette (Catherine Salee) encourages the boss to allow a re-vote on Monday, and Sandra’s husband (Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione) advises her to visit each of the 16 co-workers and request that they reconsider their vote. Though she would rather curl up in bed, Sandra’s trek to visit each co-worker takes every ounce of courage and energy she can muster.

This is a fascinating study of economic realities vs human nature, even right vs wrong. Can these people look beyond what is best for themselves and do the right thing for Sandra? These individual meetings are excruciating to watch. Asking each person to vote for her is agonizing for Sandra, while each of the co-workers has their own personal struggles that make the decision not so simple.

Marion Cotillard is a revelation here. This is not the glamorous movie star you might think of. Instead, she dresses down, wears minimal make-up, and walks and talks like the desperate working class woman she is playing … all while carrying the burden of a clinical depressed person. Mostly, she taps into an emotional state that is powerful to watch. The Oscar nominated is definitely justified.

While it seems the suspense of each scene is almost more than Sandra can take, there is a moment of release and joy during the sing-along with Van Morrison (on the radio). The character of Sandra defines “putting up a good fight”, and she proves that sometimes that is the most important thing.

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THE KID WITH A BIKE (2012, Le gamin au velo, Belgium)

April 9, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. When Guy (Jeremie Renier) states that he can’t take care of his son Cyril (Thomas Douret) right now, I felt a rush of anger and disgust. Imagine if you were his 11 year old son hearing those words. Young kids should be able to count on their parents for emotional security above all else. There should be no fear of abandonment … those are issues no child should be forced to deal with (barring a natural disaster).

The Belgium writer/director team of brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have a history of taking on parenthood and childhood in a head-on manner. Cyril is dumped in an orphanage by his dad, and is convinced that he is just misplaced, not abandoned. So being the fiercely determined kid he is, he re-traces his steps from coffee shops to bars to their old apartment. Cyril knows with certainty that his dad would never would have sold his treasured bicycle, no matter how desperate for money he was.  It is crushing when Cyril discovers this “certainty” was not so certain after all.

Whatever confusion and hostility that you think Cyril might experience, once he confronts his dad, the filmmakers display it in the rawest possible form. Cyril is a symbol of need, hiding behind a wall of rebellion. A chance encounter with Samantha (Cecile de France) leads to weekend visitations and the start of an awkward quasi-family life for both of them. Cyril tests Samantha and all other authority figures in every possible manner, often to the breaking point.  It’s not difficult to imagine most giving up on him, but Samantha doesn’t.

 As a parent, it’s easy to spot the vulnerabilities that a child faces before they have the maturity to handle it. We see how easily Cyril falls in with the wrong crowd and how quickly things can get really bad. Luckily for Cyril, Samantha doesn’t abandon him. She answers “I don’t know” to his question of why she let him stay with her. Although, the filmmakers never let us in on her deepest thoughts, we suspect she was once not all so different than Cyril, and someone stepped up for her.

This film won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011 and it’s easy to see how. It shows how difficult and messy ordinary life can be, yet things often turn out OK, though rarely perfect. Film lovers will recognize Cecile de France from her many films, including the recent Hereafter and the excellent Mesrine.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need a quick lesson in how a kid reacts to abandonment

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: someone told you this is the best bicycle movie since Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (2005)

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