The Night of the 12th
Drawn from a true story, this 'Zodiac'-meets-'Mindhunter'-style French investigative thriller is potent and gripping.
October 13, 2022
On the night of the 12th, the incident that makes that date worthy of a movie's moniker happens quickly, heartbreakingly and horrifyingly so. It's October 2016, in the French Alps-region city of Grenoble, and Clara Royer (Lula Cotton-Frapier, Mixte) is walking home alone after an evening at her best friend Nanie's (Pauline Serieys, Grown Ups). It's 3am, the streets are quiet, and she's giddy with affection, sending a video message telling her pal how much she loves her. All it takes is a hooded figure emerging from the dark, whispering her name, dousing her with liquid and sparking a lighter, and Clara will never arrive home. Before this occurs in The Night of the 12th's opening scenes, director and co-writer Dominik Moll (Only the Animals) shares details just has distressing and dismaying: the French police are tasked with solving 800 murders a year, 20 percent of them never can be and, sadly, the case in this feature is among the latter.
It might seem a strange decision, giving away the film's ending before it even begins; however, while The Night of the 12th is about the search for Clara's killer, it's never about the murderer. Instead, as it adapts 30 pages from Pauline Guéna's non-fiction book 18.3 — A Year With the Crime Squad, takes a Zodiac-style procedural approach and opts for a Mindhunter-esque survey of interrogations as well, it makes clear how easy and common it is for situations like this come about, especially in a world where women are slain at men's whims with frequency (then typically blamed if any of their own actions can be wrongly perceived to have put themselves in danger). Alongside David Fincher's serial killer fare, Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder casts a shadow, too, as detective Yohan Vivès (Bastien Bouillon, Jumbo) and his partner Marceau (Bouli Lanners, Nobody Has to Know) scour the area for suspects and answers. "The problem is that any one of them could have done it," Yohan observes after potential culprit after potential culprit fields their queries and flouts their engrained misogyny.
Was it the bartender boyfriend (Baptiste Perais, The Companions), who saw Clara as nothing more than a fling on the side? The gym buddy (Jules Porier, Simone Veil, a Woman of the Century) that's guffawing seconds after the cops bring up the killing, all while bragging about a friends-wth-benefits setup? A rapper (Nathanaël Beausivoir, Runaway) knew the police would come calling because he wrote a song about setting Clara alight, while an awkward local squatter (Benjamin Blanchy, Spiral) welcomes the attention. By the time that her dalliance with an older man (Pierre Lottin, Les Harkis) with a violent past and convictions for domestic abuse comes up, one of Yohan and Marceau's colleagues is joking about Clara's taste in men. Judgemental views about women don't just fester among the interviewees; how many cases have been hindered by such prejudiced perspectives, The Night of the 12th silently gives viewers cause to wonder.
Played as meticulous and passionate by Bouillon, the newly promoted Yohan isn't one of those chauvinist officers. More prone to splashing his feelings around in Lanners' hands, neither is Marceau. The film's central duo is dutiful and dedicated, and their efforts turn The Night of the 12th into a chronicle of devoted and hard-working people doing what they're supposed to — and well, and with care — even if viewers instantly know they won't achieve their desired outcome. In the script by Moll and his regular co-scribe Gilles Marchand (Eastern Boys), both men find the case impacting them in different ways, though, including the fact that their obsessive endeavours don't and won't wrap up the case. Amid chasing leads, making enquiries and sitting down with the men in Clara's life, Yohan lives a spartan existence in his spick-and-span apartment and in his relationships. Marceau is navigating a marriage breakdown, and his emotions run high personally and professionally.
It might seem strange, too, crafting a movie about a murdered young woman that's actually about men. (If that one word hadn't already been used as a film title this year, also for a Cannes-premiering flick about the terrors that haunt a patriarchal society, it would've fit here). But as Moll puts it, and as won't come as a surprise to anyone watching for a second, The Night of the 12th's focus on male cops and assailants is simply and mournfully realistic. Still, his feature is as committed to ensuring that Clara is never a mere statistic as its main duo are to trying to find the person responsible for her death. The reality this story is based on has made her one of many unsolved cases, but that Clara lived, loved and was loved is never in doubt within the movie's frames. (Among the picture's many supporting performances, Cotton-Frapier's leaves an imprint.)
Also indisputable: Nanie's contention that her friend only died, and in such an appalling manner, because she was female; plus Yohan's reflection to a magistrate (Anouk Grinberg, Deception) overseeing the proceedings years later that "there is something seriously amiss in the relationship between men and women." The Night of the 12th's details express these sentiments anyway, and Moll prefers to let the story and its minutiae do the talking, but overtly stating such notions never feels forceful. That's the film from start to finish, in fact, because this is a richly elaborate piece of cinema that lets its presence be known in a lived-in way, including via Patrick Ghiringhelli's (Only the Animals) crisp cinematography and Olivier Marguerit's (Méduse) brooding score. The Night of the 12th is a feature to sleuth along with, as Moll's second whodunnit in a row, but it's also a picture to sink into as its stark truths inhabit everything seen and heard.
Three choices, all contributing to much of the striking imagery, perhaps encapsulate this patiently powerful affair best — and all that it aims to convey. Yohan and Marceau's interrogations span a varied lineup of spaces, from dank bedrooms and crumbling shacks to bars and airy apartments, inherently stressing how pervasively threats to Clara's existence have lurked. A moodily lit velodrome gives Yohan his sole outlet from the case, offering a much-needed physical coping mechanism, and all that pedalling around and around is innately symbolic. Then there's the mountainous Grenoble and the Maurienne valley setting overall, moved from Versailles where Guéna spent a year in the Criminal Investigation Department, and not just naturally gorgeous but picture perfect and easy fodder for scenic French holiday dreams. Something atrocious, complex and unsolvable happens there, just as it can and does anywhere — and shaking that, and the tightly wound, deeply piercing movie overall, isn't easy.
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