Unsurprisingly, French director Dominik Moll’s police procedural thriller, The Night of the 12th (La nuit du 12, 2022), adapted from 30 pages of Pauline Guéna’s 528-page true crime novel, 18.3 – A Year At The PJ (2020), is a dark entry in the genre. In the previous decade, 2010-2020, Nordic Noir became a popular source of detective and crime drama for foreign audiences in the UK, with the US doing English language remakes of the Danish series The Killing (Forbrydelsen, 2007-2012, and the Danish and Swedish co-collaboration, The Bridge (Broen/Bron, 2011-2018). France’s excellent crime series, Spiral (Engrenages, 2005-2020), by Alexandra Clert and Guy-Patrick Sainderichin, and, to a lesser degree, Oliver Marchal’s, Braquo (2009-2016), have been two of Europe’s strongest series.
Unlike the Nordic detectives in the aforementioned shows, as well as Wallander (2005-2013) and Beck (1997 – present), the majority of the French characters hold nothing sacred. Dark and gritty and marred by corruption, they are a dystopian vision of contemporary France.
Crime drama The Night of the 12th tempers this pattern of corruption, yet it doesn’t offer its audience a less oppressively bleak impression of police enforcement. Corruption is mostly absent, aside from one impassioned officer crossing the line. Moll’s story is instead honest about the futility of closing murder cases from the start – the text onscreen reads: “Each year, the French police open more than 800 murder investigations. Nearly 20% remain unsolved. This relates to one of them.”
The story centres on the murder of Clara Royer (Lula Cotton-Frapier), a young woman who is torched one night after leaving her best friend, Stéphanie’s (Pauline Serieys) house. Despite a methodical investigation, the team led by Captain Yohan Vivès (Bastien Bouillon), is unsuccessful in identifying a prime suspect. Three years later, a new judge (Anouk Grinberg) assigned to the case encourages Yohan to reopen the investigation, but Clara’s murder is destined to remain unsolved.
Moll commits to the procedural details of the investigation, which will delight audiences that appreciate these finer points. Those less interested in this approach will struggle because revealing the investigation’s outcome at the beginning sacrifices the suspense and undermines the mystery. Despite the reveal, we still grow frustrated by the series of dead-ends. The audience feeds off the determination of the investigators to find Clara’s killer, and the story effectively reconstitutes the source of its suspense – the audience is lured into hope beyond hope.
The premise of the crime film is to solve the crime, but the ulterior motive is to interrogate our prejudices. The accusations fly around, and we watch people being reminded of their worst moments and traits. It’s not only those murdered who are the victims – there are those caught up in the spiral of suspicion and accusation. Those doing the accusing are flawed heroes, and while their intentions might be noble, they are harbingers of the ugly mess that will unravel. The reason the detective character is stereotypically flawed and often lonely has become irrelevant – it’s in the genes.
Yohan is the archetypal detective – a lonely figure outside of work. Living alone, with no sign of a family, or desire for an intimate relationship, he allows Marceau (Bouli Lanners), the elder member of the team whose marriage has fallen apart, to sleep on his couch. Yohan, like his peers, cares for others, but his life is incomplete.
The team seems to accept that having anything like a normal life is a form of suicide. They try to impart their cynical warnings to a new and young member of the team, who is happily engaged. It’s a captivating and humorous scene because the genre suggests a manifest destiny. While we chuckle and hope his optimism holds true, we’re cynical. The detective is often a character trapped in a cycle of one investigation after another, sacrificing their marriages and relationships with their children. But maybe we’re wrong to be cynical because the theme and idea beneath this grim story are that some of us can empower ourselves to choose how we respond and control life’s demands. It’s not a privilege of the dead, the memory of who is in the hands of others.
Clara is scrutinised as much as the suspects, especially her lifestyle of “friend sex”, and sleeping around while in a relationship. If the men and young men are as guilty of such behavior as she is, it feels that the stigma of “slut shaming”, a reprehensible product of patriarchal discrimination, speaks ill of the dead.
Yohan presses Stéphanie for the names of anyone Clara dated or slept with, and eventually, with tears in her eyes, she says, “Clara loved to be liked; that’s true. She always fell for the wrong guy. Maybe she didn’t refuse the jerk’s advances. I don’t know. But she was a sweet girl. She wanted to laugh and have fun. And all I can say about her is sick stuff.” The violence against the victim continues after their death, and while it exists in many crime films, Moll powerfully emphasises it with genuine compassion.
A qualm of The Night of the 12th is the male-dominated investigative team. In Spiral and other detective feature-length episodic dramas, for example, Beck and Wallander, the mix of masculine and female representation is an effective choice. Moll initially leaves the film vulnerable to criticism because the men are the heroes for the wronged woman, but her sexual promiscuity is questioned, even criticised. While there’s no hefty judgement against her, such politics matter, and Maurice is aware of and speaks up about centuries-old patriarchal violence.
Three years on, a few of the original investigators have moved on, and one new face is Nadia (Mouna Soualem). Her arrival and prominent inclusion reveal a self-awareness of the political tightrope The Night of the 12th has been walking. Talking to Yohan, she asks him, “Don’t you find it weird most crimes are committed by men, and mostly men are supposed to solve them? Men kill, and the police are men. Odd, isn’t it?” Yohan gives a non-committal reply, and she says, “A man’s world.”
The Night of the 12th seems to lack thematic interests, which for much of it, prevents the film from rising to the upper echelons of the genre. For a time, it’s a solid, well-made film, and then, surprisingly, it comes into thematic bloom.
Echoing recurring ideas in the genre about the investigators’ burden, there’s a philosophical tilt to it that suggests this archetypal character is a metaphor for the human experience. Aside from the philosophical rhythm, the fact that it’s two women, Nadia and the judge, that are integral to this thematic evolution and the personal impact on Yohan, reveals an intriguing reflection on gender politics. The Night of the 12th responds to what Nadia and Yohan know: “Something’s wrong between men and women.” Clara is another in a long line of victims in a man’s world.
The Night of the 12th played at the Glasgow Film Festival 2023, followed by an exclusive release in UK cinemas by Picturehouse Entertainment on 31 March 2023. The film will be released theatrically in the US by Film Movement.