Our Responsibility to Strangers: The Unknown Girl

the unknown girl

What responsibility do I have to a stranger?

If I see someone on the street crying, I don’t comfort them. Right? Keep to yourself. Don’t interfere.

But what if I see that person fall down? I don’t help them up, right? They can pull themselves up. Toughen up. They probably don’t want my help.

What if they walk in front of traffic? Are hit by a car? I interfere, right? But what makes that different from the other times?

Dr. Jenny Davins is a gentle, considerate, helpful, caring, practically perfect doctor to her patients. She makes house visits at weird hours of the night, sleeps in her office, and will drop everything to take care of you. She is far overdue for some time to herself, time to close her doors and get some rest.

But one fateful night, when she closes her doors and ignores a woman who knocks, the woman shows up dead the next morning. Who is to blame? Certainly not the good doctor. Nobody blames her.

Yet Dr. Davins can’t get the woman out of her head. The nameless woman no one can identify. The nameless woman who may die without a tombstone and a family. So Dr. Davins goes on a search to find her.

The Unknown Girl is a Belgian French foreign-language film from the respected Dardenne brothers. Please don’t let that scare you off! I’m a little hesitant about foreign language movies, too (a small piece of my father’s soul just died), but I am very, very thankful I saw this one. Trust me, the mystery is so gripping and the acting and story so powerful that the inconvenience of subtitles becomes nothing in their wake.

The Unknown Girl has on display some of the better qualities of European films compared to American films. Generally speaking, in American films, every character and shot is glossy. Even with those that aren’t trying to be, there are things that just make the reality of the movie out of reach. The characters never stumble with their words. Conversations always have a great pacing. The characters never wear the same clothes or hair twice, and they’re certainly never within my price range. No time is wasted on small details when there is the overwhelming push for action and plot.

The Unknown Girl kept surprising me by breaking all of those rules. The Dardennes are known for their documentary-like style. This film does not rush itself or its story. The quiet revelations and heartbreaking moments knock quietly, and the simplicity of each scene is so natural that I could see interactions I’ve had in my life reflected in the ones on the screen.

The greatest part of the film, though, is its star, Adele Haenel. She centers the film with an unexplainable intensity and quiet charisma. In her, I saw myself. Or rather, potential for me. Here was a character that I could look up to, because she was in my reach. I don’t look up to superheroes or Katniss Everdeen or Harry Potter. They are too good in too fantastical of worlds. I can’t match their heroics or even force of personality.

But maybe, just maybe, I could have the integrity of courage of Doctor Davins. Maybe I could be afraid like she was, but go on. Maybe I could care as much about people as she did.

I was moved by The Unknown Girl. Moved in a different way from other movies of the year. I was swept away by the grandeur of Beauty and the Beast and War for the Planet of the Apes and Dunkirk. I was startled and entranced by the uniqueness brought to Logan and Wonder Woman and Baby Driver. I cheered along with the victories of The Big Sick and Battle of the Sexes and To the Bone. A little piece of me died with Despicable Me 3 and The Emoji Movie.

None of these films, though, made me empathize and despise a character at once, or even grasp for a moment my ability to be like them. None of them made me rethink my own actions towards others, and none of them left me feeling as full and hopeful the way The Unknown Girl did.

-Madeleine D

“Putting the Show Back in Chauvinist” : Battle of the Sexes


“You know, I remember when the actual match happened,” an older woman told me as we walked out of the theater together. I threw away my popcorn as she reminisced, “At the time, I just thought it was a big show.”

The famous 1973 match between women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King and retired champion Bobby Riggs was set up as an elaborate publicity stunt, with parades, dancers, costumes, and sponsorships. But Battle of the Sexes reveals the more sinister elements going on underneath. Infidelity, repressed sexuality, addiction, and, of course, sexism.

Battle of the Sexes’ main plot might be the lead up to the match, but the topic that obviously interests the filmmakers more is Billie Jean’s affair with hairdresser Marilyn, her sexual awakening. I think people should know what movie they are going to see, so just keep that in mind.

What I found most interesting about it was, while it’s tastefully done, the film hides the negative aspects of the relationships. We do see the toll the affair takes on Billie Jean emotionally, and her husband Larry is portrayed as a great guy. But the film leaves out of its ending credits what ended up happening to the relationship (Marilyn sued Billie for palimony, outed Billie through the lawsuits, and Billie lost her sponsorships).

Whether you agree with the choices Billie Jean King made or not, not telling the truth about something seems suspicious on the part of the filmmakers. However, it’s also Hollywood, and to be expected. It just sets up an odd tonal shift with Billie tearing herself up about it one minute, then the next throwing Larry out and seemingly confident with her decision in the next. It’s like the filmmakers wanted to realistically show what a situation like that is like, but not in a way that could be interpreted as negative or disheartening.

All that said, this is the best performance I’ve seen Emma Stone give. She’s always been talented, of course, but here her role just allows her to be even more transformative. She’s not the La La Land actress, fantasy girl. She’s a flesh and blood woman. Her Billie Jean King is driven, focused, conflicted, but when it comes to the tennis match, is always the bigger person. She faces her opposition with grace and humility, but doesn’t hesitate to speak out. She’s a role model to many for a reason.

Steve Carell plays Bobby Riggs with both over-the-top extravagance and subtle nuance. His Riggs is a showman, a con artist, and an actor. His brash and extremely sexist comments are almost laughable, and when you see how he really does seem to love his wife and family, he becomes likeable. His actions and comments are no longer as bad because he is so likable. He’s just doing publicity! Making headlines!

But that is what is just so sinister about it. When we like someone, we are less willing to critique them or call them out on something. Rigg’s sexism is so over-the-top and “playful” that it becomes normalized. It appears less harmful, although he’s preying on real attitudes. And the thing about sexism is that it isn’t just words. You don’t just hurt women’s feelings. Sexism is sinister because it is tangible. Words reflect thoughts, which is a person’s character, and eventual actions.

The things Riggs and some of the men in this movie say are scary because we almost don’t take them seriously. They are the “lovable misogynists,” and they validate men who want to do the same. There are many, many men in power who have used their lovableness and “cluelessness” to allow them to say, and then do, horrible things. It doesn’t matter that Bobby Riggs may not mean it, or his wife loves him or he’s a good dad or whatever. “Boys will be boys,” “It’s just locker room talk,” are excuses. It wasn’t appropriate then, and it doesn’t become less appropriate just because one representative woman “proved the worth” of all womankind.

There was one thing I felt missing as I walked away from Battle of the Sexes. I never got a strong establishment of the time period. Outside of tennis, what was sexism like in the wider American culture? How did people perceive the famous match? Did it really make any difference to women outside of sports? What did it mean to have one woman represent all women? Did Billie Jean King feel that burden going forwards? The film doesn’t answer any of those questions, leaving the impression that it isn’t nearly as interested in that subject as it is in its main protagonist and her love affair.

Making the main angle Billie Jean’s personal story is a good choice, though, because the typical sports story about overcoming adversity and winning has been done. That happens here, but it’s short and sweet at the end, and isn’t really the point. Winning the match for women is here, and it’s important, but by making the focus even narrower, a woman’s tumultuous time in her life, winning the match becomes bigger. It’s a matter of life and death for Billie Jean’s soul.

With those kind of stakes, it’s way more than just a show.

-Madeleine D

Behind the Meat Dress: Gaga: Five Foot Two

Gaga: Five Foot Two

If you don’t keep up with music news, then you might not have realized that last year was a pretty big deal for Lady Gaga.

The infamous singer, known for her elaborate costumes, makeup, songs, and persona, with her army of “little monsters,” underwent a huge brand change in 2016. She performed her nominated song at the Oscars (“Till It Happens To You”), won a Golden Globe for her role in American Horror Story, released her new soft rock/pop country album “Joanne” and played the Super Bowl halftime show this year. And this whole time, she’s apparently been being filmed by a documentary crew.

Right off the bat, it’s easy to write off Netflix and Chris Moukarbel’s Gaga: Five Foot Two (referring to her height) as a nice promotional piece. It is that, to some degree. I don’t personally know enough about Lady Gaga to say how die-hard fans will feel about the image she portrays here. We’ll never know how much of the footage was edited or left out. But what I saw, as someone who just had a public-mass view of Lady Gaga, was different from what I thought I knew about Lady Gaga. Suddenly, it’s not as easy to write off this film.

It is rare to see anyone, particularly a star, be able to show how complicated a person can be. Stefani Germanotta can be Lady Gaga. She can wear the meat dress and the white tee and shorts. She can be hunched over in excruciating pain and still incorporate it into a dance. She can be in a room of people and still seem alone. She can celebrate the LGBTQ community and be a part of a tight-knit Catholic family and love and be loved by them. We are walking contradictions in our own lives, but it seems unnatural to expect that from celebrities, who have to market a personal brand. It’s almost uncomfortable to see them demonstrate that they are like the rest of us, not because they mess up sometimes or are “super relatable,” but because they have as many contradictions and layers in their lives as we do. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that expressed as well as it was here.

The doc works because we have such an ingrained sense of who Lady Gaga is, we don’t have to see her “do” that persona. We see her behind-the-scenes personality, then contrast it with our own, and realize the complexity behind that.

And, helping us along the way as we try to figure out who this woman really is, is Gaga herself. She has moments of startling clarity and reflection. She talks about how her insecurities have kept her hiding behind the stage makeup and costumes and elaborate stunts. But in the same scene she gushes over her love of fashion and how she’s trying to find that balance between the high glamour she loves and the more natural image she’s trying to reveal. She voices the anxieties of women in the workplace, how the industry tried to change her, how she tried to rebel against it, and how she knows she’s more privileged than most and how her money helps her cope with her medical problems. She’s thoughtful, and she can say it while shirtless in one scene and backstage smoking in another. She’s many things at once, like we all are.

If you aren’t interested in music pop culture or don’t have any tolerance for celebrity gossip, then this might not be your film, no matter how good it is. But if you are interested in any of that stuff, even just a little, then this is well worth your time. This star-doc is well-directed and put together, but is different from others of its kind.

What makes Gaga: Five Foot Two different is Gaga herself. She has the entire doc on her shoulders, and as she proves, she can carry the whole show.

-Madeleine D