Those with any vested interest in the Dardenne brothers are well aware that The Unknown Girl is not a standard project, at least in how it’s traveled from creation to release. Breaking their long-standing one-every-three-years tradition, premiering but two (two!) years after Two Days, One Night, is one thing, and forgivable — had it earned the critical plaudits and awards handed them every single go-round. Hobbling out of Cannes with, at best, “friendly” notices (if that) and nothing else in tow is, in and of itself, enough, but then the perfectionist pair went and reedited the film. Are some of the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers handing us a damaged object?
To my mind, no. The Unknown Girl is über-Dardenne brothers, a seemingly slight detective story collapsing nearly innumerable aesthetic, formal, and thematic interests into a warm embrace, reminding us yet again why their voices are indispensable. Speaking to them at last year’s New York Film Festival, I found myself asking more about the strange contexts surrounding this project — a process that initially left them uneasy, but which led to an open, honest discussion of where they went wrong before steering back on the right course.
A great thanks to Dominique Borel, who provided on-site translation.
The Film Stage: I’m fascinated by the clockwork-like practice of showing up at Cannes every three years — but now, with The Unknown Girl, we’re two years out from Two Days, One Night. I have to assume the film’s screenplay being written years before plays a big part in this shift.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne: Yeah, a few years ago. It wasn’t complete when we were shooting Two Days, One Night — but it had been broached many, many times, and it’s because we, sort of by chance, met Adèle Haenel that we started working on the screenplay again.
Did the thought of breaking this tradition ever cross your mind, for any reason whatsoever?
Luc Dardenne: No. We were done with the screenplay earlier, so we moved faster.
What we have now is a post-Cannes edit where several minutes were cut and 32 changes were made, partly because of the mixed response from European critics. I wonder if you were at all concerned about having too much outside influence — even though the film is ostensibly complete, something outside shapes what we now see.
LD: We had already decided, even before going to Cannes, that we wanted to eliminate about a minute from one of the scenes in the film, and when we started to go back into the editing room, it was only to do that — initially. So then the editor said to us, “You know, we can cut it this way, but we can also cut it this way by cutting over here and over here.” [Bangs table] So we said, “Okay, we’re going to look at the whole film all over again.” And in one day we just went, “We’re cutting here, here, here, here,” and we never even went back over it; we just did it. The next day, we viewed the film again, and we were happy. We found the rhythm of the movie, and we didn’t find the rhythm before Cannes — and the critics were right. It’s not very fun, but they were right.
For artists of your precision, I’d imagine it’s rather difficult to enter Cannes with a cut not entirely to your specifications.
JPD: No! Because we went there like that, or we wouldn’t have. I mean, if we were so sure of those cuts, we would have done it before Cannes. I mean, you can’t go back and rewrite history, but normally, when we finish shooting a film, we wait two weeks before starting to edit; this time, we didn’t do it that way. We ended our shoot on Thursday, and Monday, we were in the editing room. And that was a terrible mistake, because we didn’t give ourselves enough time to free ourselves from the shoot. So, as you saw, we have long, sequential shots — as you can see from the movie — and they can bewitch you, those long takes.
And, at that point, we’re still completely fascinated and mesmerized by the work that we’ve done, and it’s hard to start making cuts immediately. As Luc said, when we did decide to make the cut, it happened in one day. After that, people either like or don’t; that’s another question. Because, from the beginning, the challenge for us in the movie was finding the right balance between her job as a doctor and her quest for the name of the girl. In the second editing, we felt that we were better able to do that because we were able to get more in Jenny’s head and not in the chronological order.
Why did you start editing at a quicker pace?
LD: Well, it’s true that Cannes was coming up. We knew that we were probably going to spend a lot of time in the editing room; furthermore, we had the composition and the music with the boys singing, and we had to integrate all that, and we knew that was going to be a long process. The composer that did the song which the boy sings, he also had written other music for the film, and we were thinking how to integrate that; we ended up not using any music at all. So we pressured ourselves a little bit, and we shouldn’t have.
JPD: We learn every day. At every age.
I love this as an über-Dardenne film, e.g. the narrative recalls La Promesse, and this woman’s journey brings to mind Two Days, One Night. Are you especially conscious of narrative overlaps and echoes with your other films?
LD: I don’t think so. I think that, when you create something new, you have to forget what preceded it. So if you don’t let all that go, you start repeating things, and we know that there are certain things that are our own personal obsessions, but just because we talk about those things all the time. Sometimes we say, “Watch out. Here, we’re clearly doing something that’s a little too identical.” So we do recognize that. We think about it. But you have to sort of throw yourself into the void and just move forward, and we know the obsessions are going to come back to haunt us. Here, of course there is a similarity between Two Days, One Night and our character in this movie, because in one, she goes from house-to-house; here, she goes from person-to-person. It’s not the same, but there’s an echo.
Being a Dardenne brothers film, The Unknown Girl features appearances by Jérémie Renier and Olivier Gourmet; and their casting will, I think, signal certain things about their characters. I wonder if, first, you know who they’ll play while in the writing process; second, if you worry about them possibly signaling too much.
JPD: First, no. But for the second: it’d be wrong to say we never think of it. We always thought, in the case of Jérémie — because, with Olivier, it’s a much smaller part — that he would never be giving a sign of where the character was going to go in the film. We did think, when people saw Jérémie appear in the film, they would think, “A-ha. Here’s someone who’s going to have an important part.” See, we were pretty sure that once you saw Jérémie appear on the screen, the audience would know he was guilty of something — but we were less interested in that than how Jenny was going to discover that he was guilty, and that process. But it’s a very pertinent question that you’re asking; it’s a very good question.
There’s a single shot where Jenny is driving, stops, rolls down her window, her car’s hood gets smashed, she resumes driving, and almost gets into an accident. It’s as technically impressive as anything you’ve done, and I’d like to know about the preparation and execution.
JPD: A long take. Just one shot. First, you have the camera with Jenny sitting, so we worked out the other car arriving and rolling down the window. So Jenny doesn’t slow down, and the bad guys’ car takes off and we stay with Jenny. They really did go and stop her in the other direction, but it’s off-camera. So then she brakes. Then, with the camera movement, we rediscover the guy coming, the whole thing with rolling down the window. So we decided that everything that happened after that would be off-camera, and it’s the car that comes back into the frame and then takes off again, and that we would remain with Jenny. It just seemed to us that it was more violent to be near Jenny’s face and to see the car that just backed up and took off. And then Jenny takes off again, following the motorbike, and then the camera turns a little to be on the motorbike. The camera stayed in the same place all the time.
LD: Everything that happens outside of the car is just a question of timing: when is this car going to take off, when is the bike going to take off, when is it going to move this way, etc., and having great confidence with the driver of the car that passes Jenny, because he really stops short in front of the car. Since we’re in a long take, we have to see, when we discover the other car, that it did block Jenny’s car. And we had one small technical glitch, which was related to the BMW: we thought that if he left the key in the ignition, when he goes to open the trunk, he could just open the trunk. It’s not possible, so he just needed the key. So he had to take the key, but when he comes back to the trunk with the key, if he presses the button to open the trunk, he has to wait three or four seconds for it to open. So what we had to do was place him behind the black actor, who was in front of Jenny’s window, and what we had him do was: he went to get the key in the guy’s pocket, and he clicked on it to open the trunk then, so that by the time he got to the car, it could open easily. If you see the film a second time, you will see. [Laughs]
The Unknown Girl opens on Friday, September 8.