Here’s a sentence I’ve never written from Cannes before: The new Dardenne brothers’ movie was kind of a letdown. Bear in mind, that’s mostly due to the ridiculously high bar set by the Belgian duo during the past 20 years—what qualifies as lesser work from them might easily represent another filmmaker’s crowning achievement. (It’s also worth noting that my least favorite of their films from that period, Rosetta, won the Palme D’Or here in 1999 and is widely considered one of their best.) But The Unknown Girl (Grade: B-) finds the Dardennes placing one of their customary moral tales within the labyrinthine structure of a murder mystery, and that proves to be a somewhat clumsy fit.
The inciting incident happens almost immediately, when a young doctor, Jenny Davin (Adèle Haenel), who practices in a building opposite a busy expressway parallel to the Meuse River in Seraing, Belgium (the Dardennes’ usual stomping ground), refuses to let her intern (Olivier Bonnaud) answer an after-hours buzz at the door. The next day, police detectives show up to question Jenny about a woman found dead by the riverside; video surveillance footage shows the dead woman frantically pressing Jenny’s buzzer, right at the time she deliberately ignored it. Although she’s absolved of all responsibility by the police and everyone else (and it’s not clear whether the woman was murdered or simply fell and fatally hit her head), Jenny becomes obsessed with putting a name to this unidentified woman, so that her family can be notified. She shows a photo, taken from the clearest surveillance image, to all of her patients, eventually uncovering a clue—thanks to her medical knowledge, aptly—that leads her to undertake a full-fledged investigation. There are blind alleys, sinister threats, seemingly irrelevant characters later revealed to be crucial witnesses—all the hallmarks of the genre, though The Unknown Girl actually boasts fewer suspenseful moments than do some of the Dardennes’ previous, less plotty films (particularly The Son and L’Enfant).
As a murder mystery, the film will only work for viewers unfamiliar with the Dardennes’ oeuvre, in large part because of an ill-advised casting decision. (Even saying that much probably constitutes a spoiler for some people.) Narrative concerns are decidedly secondary, though, to Jenny’s internal journey of self-discovery, which is unusually schematic for these filmmakers, to the point of being downright blunt. Just before the fateful unanswered buzz, Jenny rushes to help a small child in her waiting room who’s having a seizure; her intern freezes when she asks for his help, and quits medicine later that day, after Jenny calmly, dispassionately lectures him about the danger of becoming emotionally involved with patients. There are multiple references to Jenny also having yelled at the intern for freezing—she apologizes for it; he insists that her outburst didn’t influence his decision not to be a doctor—but the Dardennes skip past this seemingly crucial moment, almost certainly because they realized that showing it would make the contours of their design too obvious. It’s still pretty obvious, though, as Jenny’s personal involvement with the dead woman enriches the lives of just about everyone she encounters, making her both a better doctor and person. An admirably humanistic outlook, to be sure, but the Dardennes usually demonstrate a lighter touch with their grace.
Haenel, who’s previously been terrific in House Of Pleasures, Love At First Fight, and In The Name Of My Daughter, does predictably fine work as Jenny, dialing back her combustible nature in favor of low-key determination. Still, I’m now glad that nobody accepted my offer to take the entire field against her (at 12-1) for Best Actress, because Sonia Braga gives the performance of her long, storied career in Aquarius (Grade: B+), Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s follow-up to his much admired Neighboring Sounds (2012). Set, like that film, in Recife, the capital city of Pernambuco, Aquarius is named for the apartment complex in which Clara (Braga) grew up and where she still lives at age 65, in retirement, even though she’s the last tenant remaining in the building. Where Neighboring Sounds leaned heavily on formalism, fashioning a kaleidoscopic portrait of an entire block, Aquarius is more conventionally structured. Its plot, which sees Clara standing her ground against the rapacious interests of developers who want to tear down the Aquarius and build a condominium, dates back at least to Elia Kazan’s Wild River. But Mendonça Filho is as interested in Clara herself as he is her ties to the objects that partly define her life and takes time for numerous digressions (this is yet another long’un, two hours and 20 minutes) involving her love life, her family, her relationship with her longtime maid (Zoraide Coleto), and her love of music ranging from samba to Queen. (I think I startled much of the audience at my screening by cackling loudly when Clara pulls a vinyl copy of Queen’s Jazz down from her shelf at one point—the cover is instantly recognizable even from a distance, and given the context, I knew exactly which song she was about to blast at full volume.) The character study doesn’t mesh with the social-justice drama as snugly as one might hope, but it’s hard to complain that they seem like two separate movies when both movies are so thoroughly enjoyable. And they do share Braga, who makes Clara an indomitable force of nature while also expertly revealing the character’s fragility. Plus, she’s allowed to be a fully sexual woman at 65. “Dona Clara, forgive me, but are you hitting on me?,” asks a hunky young lifeguard at one point, and I could almost hear the audience thinking, “You wish.”
Here’s what I wish: I wish someone would buy Filipino director Brillante Mendoza a decent camera. His latest effort, Ma’ Rosa (Grade: C), is far and away the cruddiest-looking film I’ve seen here this year, and possibly in several years—even Tangerine, the movie famously shot on an iPhone 5s, looks better. Not that a sharper image would much improve this chaotic portrait of police corruption, which seeks to engender empathy for small-time drug dealers by demonstrating that the cops who arrest them are even worse. The title character, Rosa (“Ma” seems to be a nickname, à la Ma Kettle), played by veteran actress Jaclyn Jose, runs a convenience store with her husband, Nestor (Julio Diaz), where they sell ice (i.e., crystal meth) on the side. Early in the film, the Manila police bust the joint, finding both their stash and a notebook containing the names of their customers and suppliers—more than enough to secure a conviction. Rather than start the wheels of justice turning, however, the cops hustle Rosa and Nestor into a decrepit back room and offer them a deal: cough up 50,000 pesos (about $1,000), and the whole thing will be forgotten. Much of the rest of the film follows the couple’s three kids as they beg, borrow, and steal the necessary sum; the younger of the two boys even sells his body, though it’s not clear whether he’d been doing that before.
I guess we’re meant to admire their fortitude? While I reflexively cringe at the complaint “There’s no one to root for,” Mendoza abjectly fails to provide a reason why viewers should care about any of this. Some Manila police no doubt are corrupt enough to shake down citizens—I doubt screenwriter Troy Espiritu invented it—but while that’s obviously repugnant, it’s arguably a boon to Rosa and Nestor, who are in fact drug dealers and would otherwise be headed to jail. Are we meant to think they should just be left alone, because they’re small-timers operating out of a mom-and-pop? (This is meth, not weed. There’s an argument to be made for decriminalization across the board, to which I’m somewhat sympathetic, but Ma’ Rosa doesn’t explore that in the slightest.) The moral calculus of this film escapes me, frankly, which leaves me with nothing to do but watch a handheld prosumer camera repeatedly careen through teeming throngs of people—close enough to examine their pores, were the image not even muddier than the streets. This is Mendoza’s 14th feature, and his third time in Competition at Cannes (following Serbis in 2008 and Kinatay in 2009). Surely, he can afford decent equipment by now.
Tomorrow: Xavier Dolan (Mommy) returns to Cannes with his first French (as opposed to French-Canadian) film, It’s Only The End Of The World, starring Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, and Léa Seydoux. Also, the latest from previous Palme D’Or winner Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days) and another Jim Jarmusch movie—this one a documentary about The Stooges (Iggy, not Curly).