An Interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
by Amir Ganjavie
In their tenth feature, The Unknown Girl, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne tell the story of a doctor, played by Adèle Haenel, who refuses to open her door to a stranger seeking help, after which she realizes that this person has died. Feeling responsible for her death, she tries to find the name of the victim and perhaps the reason or motivation behind her death, using the meticulous, analytical methods characteristic of her craft. The Dardennes’ cinema has been much inspired by the writing of French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, and this film probably makes for the most nuanced representation of his work in cinema: it is through the lens of morality that we can best understand the motivations of their characters. In our conversation, we spoke about Levinas, as well as the mesmerizing lead performance by Haenel, whose face anchors the movie.
RS: Can you talk about the relationship between morality and your cinema? How do you think that cinema can address moral issues?
LD: Let’s start with the example of Lorna’s Silence. We saw a news story that depicts a street educator, a social worker who worked with drug addicts, with the homeless, and other vulnerable people. This girl has a brother who is a drug addict and he receives a proposal from the Albanian MOP in Brussels to marry an Albanian prostitute so that the prostitute could acquire Belgian nationality, after which she is supposed to divorce the junkie and marry someone from the mafia so that he becomes Belgian. Why drug addicts? Because the Albanian tells the drug addicts that they get 3000 euros on the day that they get married, and the laws have changed so that one year after the marriage the person becomes Belgian. At that point the drug addict could divorce and get 5000 more euros. However, in reality there was no divorce because the mafia killed the boy with an overdose. There had already been three such cases in Brussels so the social worker tells her brother not to get married because he will die. We considered this scenario and asked ourselves how to transform it and to make the facts into a moral question. Thus the prostitute became an immigrant who had a cafe with a friend who, like her, also came from Albania through a false marriage to a drug addict. However, the addict becomes someone important to her, someone that perhaps she cannot kill. Will she kill him or not? Finally, in the film she wants to save him but will not succeed because she wants both to save him and to have the money from the marriage. So, we have turned these news items into a moral issue. Do I cause death? Do I accept that someone will die or do I refuse to participate in this crime? Our films often have that question of whether or not to save someone from death.
RS: I think this is the clearest subject of your latest film.
LD: Well, we tried to do that with this story, without turning the character into a police inspector. She must remain a doctor and it must be thanks to medicine that she can approach the truth, approach what she seeks. She does not seek the culprit; she seeks to find this young woman’s name so that she is not buried anonymously, because if she is dead and there is no name then it is as if she were dying a second time. This is not to give her a second life, but to allow her to die and to return to the community of human beings. Looking for the name of the girl, she will meet the person who is responsible for her death, but what she is looking for is the name.
RS: Levinas believes that all moral issues begin with the face. This seems very tied to the aspect of morality you seek in your film. Many of the reactions happen because finally looking at somebody creates the motivation to make good choices. The doctor cannot see the face of the girl when she was in the door.
LD: That is important, and also, as Levinas argued, we can’t neglect the importance of listening, because it is by listening to others that they can speak. The film begins with the scene in which the doctor listens to the patient’s breathing, the rhythm of life. We tried to have it so that it was someone who listens rather than is more intrusive.
RS: How important to you is the face when choosing actors?
LD: This is very important. The doctor must not become a judge. That is to say that she feels guilty because she has not opened her door and looked for the girl’s name. She swears, “I do not want to accuse you and I do not want to denounce you to the police. I have medical confidentiality so tell me the truth about the girl so that I can find her name. I do not ask what you did or did not do.” She asks Olivier Gourmet’s father whether he was the gentleman who was with her and that she does not want to know what he did but only for him to tell her what she needs to know in order to find the girl’s name. She’s telling the truth and does not have a hidden agenda. That’s why, from Levinasian perspective, Adèle’s face was important, because there’s something about her that seems to indicate that she is not interested in intrigue or calculations. She is still on the outside, so there is a certain innocence in her face, in her eyes. However, at the same time, her gaze is constant and never falters. Sometimes it’s a little hard and cold, having a side that is not sentimental and does not induce people to tell the truth; it does not seduce them.
RS: It is hard to image this film without Adèle Haenel’s penetrating gaze.
LD: Ah! Yes. This film was able to see the light of day because we met Adèle Haenel. We’ve seen her act in movies before, but we met at an event in Paris where she was receiving an award for a film. When we saw her there we talked a little but then we were separated. We thought, here is a young actress whose face could serve as a motor for our project, which we were having difficulty developing and writing. Because we had seen her, we said to ourselves that, thanks to her face, we may be able to make sure that this doctor gets to talk to others, the people she wants to speak with to know the truth, but she will never become a judge because of the naiveté of her face, her youth, her innocence. Her inexperience in life is ultimately going to be her strength. However, at the same time it is true that she is a professional actress, and we have decided to work with professional actresses on three or four films.
RS: Do you feel that this is a kind of noir film?
JD: Perhaps you can say this because you see it from the outside, so maybe you see better than us. But we do not say we were inspired by noir films. However, it is true that there is something of the investigation that is present in the film. We also do not know who the killer is, and we do not know the name of the victim and that the investigation of the name will lead to another investigation. Our doctor is in a little bit of danger, and we never know what might happen to her. We did not take inspiration from noir films, though it’s possible that it influenced us all the same without our knowing it.
RS: Your staging now seems more chic, more bourgeois compared to your early films, like La Promesse, which used handheld cameras a lot. Are you now more interested in mise-en-scène?
JD: It’s difficult to say. I understand the question, and you can say that today, but it was not a planned decision. The fact was that it was the only way to film. There are fewer movements and there are often two people in the frame. The best answer that I can provide, though I do not know what Luc thinks about it, is that often we think of a sentence by an Italian playwright Eduardo De Filippo, who said that if you seek style then you find death, but if you seek life then you find style.
LD: And we’re trying to keep it alive. I’m not saying we can do it all the time, but I hope we get there from time to time and that’s it.