Belgian auteurs Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have received multiple Palme d’Or awards at the Cannes Film Festival over the years, and at the Cannes press conference for their new competition film “The Unknown Girl” Wednesday, the brothers shared the secret to their success.
“We’re just one person,” said Jean-Pierre Dardenne, suggesting that the two brothers are completely in sync when it comes to making creative decisions. “It doesn’t look like that, because there are two physical people.” While the brothers may claim they have a totally unified vision when it comes to filmmaking, their frequent producer Denis Freyd conceded that they go back and forth changing each other’s scripts before handing it over. “They’ve drafted several copies of the screenplay, and then we read it,” Freyd said. “If they have doubts we intervene, but when it comes to creation, we just step in when they ask.”
“The Unknown Girl” stars Adèle Haenel, who last year won France’s César Award for best actress, as a doctor named Jenny who refuses to let a patient into her practice after hours, only to discover later that the woman died the same night. The guilt of having turned a patient away drives her obsession with uncovering the identity of the young woman and the circumstances of her death.
The issue of morality permeates nearly every frame of the movie, as Jenny feels responsible for the death of the young woman, despite knowing she did nothing illegal. While several journalists asked if the story served as a statement on people in Europe and the degree to which they take responsibility for their actions, the Dardennes insisted that what they were interested only in the internal struggle of their main character, nothing more.
“Moral issues are always individual [and] we are compelled by things that are very personal,” said Luc Dardenne. “Audiences of course can read the film as a story that analyzes society.”
The brothers also said that nothing in the film had any connection to the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium earlier this year, despite a reference to fake passports presented by patients in Jenny’s medical practice.
“There is no link to when we shot the film or wrote it,” said Luc Dardenne, underscoring that he and his brother avoid making concrete statements in their movies. “We try to film the flow of life without setting it in stone.”
Though Haenel made a connection between her character’s guilt in the movie and the way she perceives real problems in society, she agreed with the directors about not using the film to make a comment on the world.
“We live in cities where were constantly faced with human misery,” she said. “We can’t deal with everything all by ourselves.”