Dominik Moll’s thriller The Night of the 12th won six awards at this year’s César Awards, including Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay, but there seems to be very little buzz around its U.S. release. Maybe because many critics who follow international cinema like to turn up their noses at such mainstream award winners. (Something similar happened with last year’s excellent Lost Illusions, which received a very limited U.S. release and did little business over here.) That’s a shame, because Moll’s film feels major, with an unsettling mood that recalls such previous policier masterpieces as David Fincher’s Zodiac and Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder. Its real-world mysteries eventually become existential ones, but the film never stops sending chills up your spine.
Like those aforementioned titles, The Night of the 12th is based on a real-life case. It follows the lengthy investigation into the grisly burning death of a young woman, Clara (Lula Cotton Frapier), in a small town near Grenoble. An opening title informs us that this was but one of many unsolved murders in France, a disquieting bit of information with which to kick off a mystery, as it tells us that there won’t be a final solution to the case. In a way, it also subtly draws our attention to other aspects of the story: to the interactions among the cops investigating the case, the humdrum bureaucracy of police work, and to a general feeling of haunted desolation in this provincial area nestled next to the French Alps. (Moll has taken some liberties with the real-life case, which occurred outside Paris.) Knowing that the actual whodunit part of the whodunit might go nowhere subconsciously opens up our field of vision.
But while Moll might be interested in more than a solution to this mystery, he does know how to keep things suspenseful. The buttoned-down and diligent chief inspector, Yohan Vivès (Bastien Bouillon), spends a lot of time interviewing various men that Clara had (or was alleged to have) dalliances with. Nobody seems particularly trustworthy. One guy admits that he once wrote a song about setting her on fire. A young gym rat can’t stop himself from giggling when he hears about the girl being burnt alive. Another man, with a history of domestic abuse, remains so unnaturally calm when confronted that he seems like the guiltiest of them all.
But the cops themselves display many of the same attitudes. They crack jokes in the face of grisly crimes. They judge this young woman for her casual relationships. They claim the moral high ground even as they demonstrate their own moral baseness, over and over again. The hypocrisy seeps through. As does the loss of perspective: We might notice, as the film proceeds, that the cops spend a lot of time looking at their suspects but almost never look at the victim. They have no real sense of Clara as a person. Late in the film, when we see her parents break down on the anniversary of her murder, we’re suddenly reminded that at the heart of this story is a girl who is no more.
The quiet, kindly Yohan, who seems to have no private life of his own, notes at one point that the case reveals something fundamentally broken between men and women. That’s one reason why he becomes so obsessed with the case. It might also be the reason why he can’t move forward in his own life. This is a man who spends his free time riding his bicycle around a track; he goes around in circles to take a break from going around in circles.
Movies like Zodiac use their tales of serial killers on the loose — decades of unsolved murders, presumably by the same person — to suggest an inchoate, growing sense of evil that corrupts institutions and human relationships. The Night of the 12th is more modest. It’s only about one murder. What makes it so chilling, however, is the way it connects that crime, and its lack of a solution, to a profoundly diseased social dynamic. If other movies of this type end on the troubling idea that the killer could be anybody, The Night of the 12th dares to suggest that the killer, in some ways, is all of us.
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