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"She could worm her way out of it, but she doesn’t"

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Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne • Directors

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- CANNES 2016: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne decipher the subtle The Unknown Girl, starring Adèle Haenel, which is being shown in competition

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne • Directors
(© Cannes Film Festival)

Flanking their protagonist, French actress Adèle Haenel, Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, in their element on a Croisette they have rarely come back from without a trophy, gave the international press a few keys to interpreting their latest film, The Unknown Girl [+see also:
film review
trailer
film focus
Q&A: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
film profile
]
, which was screened in competition at the 69th Cannes Film Festival.

(The article continues below - Commercial information)Cine Iberoamericano Int

Is The Unknown Girl a personal moral fable or a diagnosis of society?
Luc Dardenne:
Both. We’ve always been interested in individuals and people, but our work is addressed at viewers that could interpret it as a story about and diagnosis of society. We were interested in a character who feels responsible as she didn’t open her door when she should have done, because it was outside opening hours but also out of pride. That’s why she embarks on this quest, and her actions trigger everyone else to tell the truth, as they are linked to the death of the girl. Being called upon is a very individual thing: it’s at her surgery that they come calling, it’s her that’s summoned by the police. She could worm her way out of it, but she doesn’t.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: For a long time we wanted to portray a character trying to make amends, who became a doctor meanwhile, a character who doesn’t spend her time avoiding questions and responsibility.
L.D.: This character refuses to sleep at night, to carry on as if she’d seen or heard nothing. She even refuses a more rewarding job. She’s called upon. Is she setting an example or not? It’s up to the audience to decide. We don’t try to present a theory, but merely to follow a character who gradually becomes more and more obsessed with the photograph of this unknown girl. But she doesn’t just feel guilty: she takes action. She shows this photograph to people and changes them.

Proximity is a constant in your films. In this sense, surely this character of the doctor was ideal?
J-P.D.: The important thing was how to tell the story, how the presence of this character could lead to her actions and how these actions could lead to her existence. After all, what’s better than filming actions that tell the stories we have in our heads?

Why did you choose Adèle Haenel?
L.D.: We met her at a party in Paris where she was receiving an award, like us. With our producer Denis Freyd, we agreed that she would make an incredible Dr. Jenny. And as we originally had an older character in mind, we simply made her a bit younger.

What direction did you want to go in with your director of photography?
J-P.D.: First of all, we should point out that we have a director of photography and a cameraman, which is not the case on many sets, where they are one and the same person. We should also point out that we’ve worked with the same team since The Promise. This time, we did a lot of tests, with different lighting, indoors and outdoors. It’s a bit literary, but our guiding principle was than the light in the film should emanate from the character. Moreover, we wanted the film to be lit in a way that wouldn’t dramatise any particular scene or tell the audience where to look.
L.D.: Both of us always rehearse with Jean-Pierre with our little video camera, imagining the movement of the camera. Then, we rehearse with the actors, which leads to changes being made, and then we make even more changes when we finally start filming. Where the actors, light and frame are concerned, what we’re interested in is the encounter between them. The camera comes across the light as if by accident. Our work is very structured, but we want to give the feeling of the unexpected, of something that hasn’t been set up beforehand.

Once again, you’ve chosen a female protagonist.
L.D.: We think women are the future of mankind. In our films, they’re the ones who take control of the situation, who take action, who are free, and who move things forward.

(Translated from French)

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