The Night of the 12th: a sobering French true-crime procedural

The winner of six Césars earlier this year, including Best Film and Best Director, this despairing account of an investigation into a misogynistic murder doesn’t stint on ugly details or damning systemic indictments.

29 March 2023

By Guy Lodge

Bastien Bouillon as Yohan in The Night of the 12th (2022)
Sight and Sound

Walking home one night in a sleepy French suburb, teenager Clara effusively FaceTimes a friend, hanging up shortly before a hooded assailant approaches her, addresses her by name, douses her in kerosene, and flicks a cigarette lighter her way. The image of her blazing, running body, streaking across the screen before crumpling to the ground, is one that colours and haunts Dominik Moll’s sober, elegant new film The Night of the 12th as it shifts to the greyer, plainer visual language of the police procedural. In a film dominated by scenes of men in tough, testy dialogue with each other, this jolting tableau – both dreamlike and all too real – of feminine vulnerability meeting with extreme masculine violence never leaves our minds. The film proceeds as its male cop characters do: quietly, methodically, burdened by thoughts of worst-case scenarios they – and we – have already seen.

This is harder, heavier material than we’ve come to expect from Moll, a first-rate genre craftsman whose best work – notably 2000’s mordant thriller Harry, He’s Here to Help and 2019’s neatly knotted mystery Only the Animals – has largely traded in sleek Hitchcockian gamesmanship with little in the way of a deeper social conscience, notwithstanding some surface-level class commentary in the latter. At first glance, The Night of the 12th might appear to be little more than a lurid true-crime exercise in the currently modish style, drawn as it is from a French non-fiction book, Pauline Guena’s 18.3: Une année à la PJ, that probed a year of activity in the national police force’s serious crime directorate.

Filleting out and lightly fictionalising a single grim case from Guena’s tome, Moll and regular co-writer Gilles Marchand don’t stint on ugly details, as the long-term investigation gradually takes in a network of boys and men who have abused or exploited Clara in a variety of ways. But neither does the film revel in such ugliness: it imparts this information with a stoic sense of duty, not so much zeroing in on burnt or bloody wounds as assembling a bigger picture of patriarchal corruption and its consequences.

The Night of the 12th (2022)

At its centre is an old-fashioned good cop/bad cop pairing that gradually evens out into systemic ineffectiveness. Young, brisk and controlled, Yohan (an excellent Bastien Bouillon) has recently taken over as the department’s chief detective; he’s paired on the case with Marceau (Bouli Lanners), a more hot-headed veteran whose marital woes keep spilling into his workplace demeanour. Every deadbeat man they question in connection with the murder seems, to the older man, a kind of analogue for disruptive forces in his personal life. Even without this hindrance, however, the case would be a confounding one, riddled with profoundly suspicious suspects and no smoking gun, or lit match.

“Any of them could have done it,” Yohan despairs, as their efforts go in circles and the trail freezes over. That’s the rub in The Night of the 12th, increasingly a Zodiac (2007)-style exercise in unverified gut feeling and elusive facts that ultimately identifies guilt in masculinity at large. One suspect composed a rap about immolating Clara prior to her murder; another may have raped her in the past; another responds to details of her death with a fit of giggles. Not all of them – or, perhaps, any of them – are the man the cops are seeking, but that’s hardly to say they’re in the clear.

Furthermore, The Night of the 12th assumes the perspective of the police without exempting them from its damning canvas; their cool investigative professionalism (and, in a sense, the film’s) registers as its own kind of complicity in a wretched, man’s-world status quo. Even the film’s crisp, unshowy craft, from Patrick Ghiringhelli’s muted, autumnal cinematography to Laurent Rouan’s steadily ticking but unhurried editing, avoids extreme surges of feeling, exuding the patience of men who can afford to wait.

Moll and Marchand have a keen ear for the dispassionate ways in which men talk about women in their absence: even Yohan’s department, oppressively a boys’ club until a late female intervention, can’t resist grubby, objectifying quips about the victim when they’re letting off steam. Boy scout-like but not entirely empathetic, Yohan attempts to raise the tone, but with no vocabulary for female anguish and exhaustion. With the system this gender-rigged, this measured but tersely angry film asks, is it any wonder so many cases go cold?

The Night of the 12th is in UK cinemas from Friday.

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