The Night of the 12th review — engrossing true-crime mystery puts men under interrogation

From minute one of Dominik Moll’s gripping true-crime drama, we know we’re unlikely to find even the slightest whiff of closure. Opening with a chyron that tells us what we’re about to watch is based on one of hundreds of unsolved murders in France – specifically, a single grisly case from Pauline Guena’s book 18.3: A Year with the Judicial Police – any hopes for The Night of the 12th unfurling as a Agatha Christie-style mystery with a distinct moral divide and bow-tied conclusion are quickly extinguished.

Instead, Moll’s film is a thorny, sobering police procedural that serves as an intriguing essay about men and the seemingly perpetual power imbalance between genders. There is also a discernible move away from more conventional crime drama leanings: Moll and screenwriter Gilles Marchand trade in nerve-shredding thrills and debonair detectives for a more grounded portrayal of largely ineffective bureaucracy and the reality of police work as an arduous, report-heavy slog.

Its primary interest, however, appears to be the alarming dichotomy between the experiences of men and women. Moll emphasis this idea from the outset: a retirement party for an outgoing police chief contrasted with a small gathering of young women in a sleepy French suburb. At the former, the all-male attendees drink raucously late into the night with the celebrations doubling-up as an induction for the incoming chief: the young, stoic Yohan (Bastien Bouillon). At the latter, a 21-year-old student, Clara Royer (Lula Cotton-Frapier), effusively records a short video message as she walks home alone. Not long after she is attacked by a hooded assailant, doused in flammable liquid and set alight.

The image of her body engulfed in flames running through the darkness is one that hangs over Moll’s film and indeed most of the characters in it. “They say every investigator is haunted by a crime,” says Yohan. But the overarching spectre looming over the film is the meeting of female vulnerability with the rampant misogyny – in both actions and attitudes – on both sides of the interrogation table.

Yohan and his team of officers, including the temperamental, world-weary Marceau (an excellent Bouli Lanners), are assigned to the case, and it quickly leads them to the doorstep of several of Clara’s male acquaintances. There the detectives encounter some unpleasant, suspicious characters but also unearth some unsavoury prejudices of their own as the investigation starts to place more emphasis on Clara, her sexual activity and apparent attraction to ‘bad boys’, than it does on those who exploited her and, ultimately, ended her life.

And so as the case turns cold and the potential breakthroughs fizzle out, it is telling, and hardly coincidental, that the female characters make the most astute, profound observations of everyone. Stéphanie (Pauline Serieys), Clara’s grief-stricken best friend, highlights to Yohan that Clara’s legacy is in danger of becoming defined by the men in her life, while an intelligent young officer named Nadia (Mouna Soualem) shrewdly questions why it is that most violent crimes against women are committed by men, and yet it is almost always men who are called in to solve it?

It’s a melting pot of weighty ideas ultimately let down by having characters explicitly spell them out in the final third. But The Night of the 12th remains a captivating study of dangerous masculinity and the ubiquity of evil. In the end, perhaps the most disconcerting takeaway is that the detectives are largely oblivious to their inherent prejudice: that they, in fact, might just be afflicted with the same impulses, the same obsessive nature, as the men they bring in to question.

George Nash is a freelance film journalist. Follow him on Twitter via @_GeorgeNash for more movie musings

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