The Night of the 12th (La nuit du 12) has its UK première at Glasgow Film Festival 2023
On the night of the 12th Oct, 2016, on the outskirts of Grenoble, 21-year-old Clara Royer (Lula Cotton-Frapier) leaves the house of her best friend Stéphanie ‘Nanie’ Béguin (Pauline Serieys) and, on her way home through the village, is accosted by someone who throws fuel over her and sets her alight. She runs in flames into the adjacent park, where her charred corpse is later found.
From the outset, before we even see this happen, we know – because opening text blankly tells us so – that, of the 800 or so French murder investigations that are launched each year, this is one of the 20% that will remain unsolved. For Dominik Moll’s The Night of the 12th (La nuit du 12) falls into a cinematic tradition, including Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003) and David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), of police procedural where procedure is all there is, as detectives obsessively pursue an end that they will never reach. This is all about the futility of effort, as these police officers, all more or less dedicated to their task and working overtime without pay, themselves become vicarious victims not just of the horrific human behaviour that they uncover, but also of their own simmering frustration at getting no useful answers.
“I see some young jerks thinking retirement’s far off”, says old Tourancheau (Nicolas Jouet) at his retirement party, on the same night that Clara is killed. ”But when you lucky guys reach my age, I’ll be just a memory.” Tourancheau’s words mark his police work as a Sisyphean task, a lifetime that ends only with someone else picking up the burden. In this case, his successor as captain of the homicide unit is young Yohan Vivès (Bastien Bouillon), sober and serious, meticulous and methodical, living alone like a monk and absolutely devoted to the task at hand. He is also new and inexperienced enough to this that, in the middle of informing Clara’s mother (Charline Paul) as to what has happened, he freezes up. As the investigation goes on, and Yohan works through the list of Clara’s sexual partners, each one worse than the last, we also regularly see him working off steam at a local velodrome, both literally and metaphorically going round in circles.
“Like a hamster,” says Yohan’s older colleague Marceau (Bouli Lanners) of Yohan’s biking. Marceau is much more experienced in the awfulness of men and murder, but also feels increasingly emasculated at home (where he is going through a divorce) and has reached his limit with the endless ‘bad boys’ that he must question professionally at work. The crime is clearly gendered. As the homicide team openly discusses, it is only ever women who are deliberately ’torched’, a particularly vicious and cruel method of murder. “Want to know why she was killed?”, the distraught Nanie will ask, fed up with constantly having to go through her friend’s sexual history. “I know, so I’ll tell you. Because she was a girl.”
The identity of the specific perpetrator may remain undisclosed – it could be any of Clara’s exes, or some other male acquaintance (“It drove me crazy that every guy we saw could’ve done it”, Yohan will later say) – but responsibility is also shown to be at a societal level, in a prison-house of patriarchy where everyone has become trapped together. “I may be mad,” Yohan comments, “but I believe we can’t find him because all men killed Clara. Something’s amiss between men and women” – and the misogyny that has led to the savage slaying of Clara is also, in its way, reflected in members of the all-male homicide team, some of whom harbour extremely unhealthy and reductive attitudes towards the opposite sex, and are keen to pass these toxic views on to any rookies.
With no real leads, the case is eventually shelved, but three years later, thanks to the intervention of examining magistrate Beltrame (Anouk Grinberg), it is reopened. This renewal of the investigation may yield no further results, but it does show the promise of change that comes with time’s passing. Now a female judge is presiding, and now – for the first time – Yohan’s team includes a female detective, Nadia (Mouna Soualem). “Don’t you find it weird most crimes are committed by men,” Nadia asks Yohan, “and mostly men are supposed to solve them?” Yet, on a small but significant scale, Nadia’s very presence represents evolution, opening up this closed circuit of criminality to a new direction and a fresh perspective.
Moll and Gilles Marchand have adapted their screenplay from Pauline Guéna’s 18.3. Une année à la PJ (2020), which was based on a year spent by the author following the police judiciary in Versailles. As text at the end reveals, “This film is a work of fiction based on real events” – a composite picture of male crime against women which, while coloured with a certain creative licence, is all too familiar in its truths. It is a minor miracle that the narrative of The Night of the 12th, left so tragically incomplete and unresolved, can still end on a note of understated optimism for a brighter future and upwards progress.
strap: Dominik Moll’s police procedural runs circles around the misogyny entrenched in patriarchal society.
© Anton Bitel