The Night of the 12th
The multiple César-winning crime drama didn't get much of a theatrical release in the U.S., but is well worth a look as it hits VOD.
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It’s always a mystery which foreign films get a wide theatrical release in the U.S., and which don’t. French movies typically do pretty well, given America’s fascination with their cinema going back to the New Wave. Earning honors at major festivals like Cannes or Venice, or winning national awards in their home country, usually guarantees a picture a run in bigger U.S. cities.
“The Night of the 12th” won multiple César Awards, the French equivalent of the Oscar, including best film, director and screenplay. It was also named the top film by the less-known Lumières Awards. So it was curious that it never got much play in American theaters, topping out at 30 screens and making a mere $64K on these shores.
It’s available for VOD rental on most streaming services today, a tense crime procedural that’s well worth a look.
I will say it’s a fairly atypical French movie, and in fact is stylistically closer to American movies in their approach to murders and the police trying to solve them. It’s a pretty straight story, focusing on a handful of detectives and the psychological toll it takes on them as their investigation drags out over months and years.
Directed by Dominik Moll from a screenplay he co-wrote with Gilles Marchand, “Night” is based on the true case of a young woman who was burned alive on Oct. 12, 2016, in remote region near Grenoble. But the characters and plot are fictionalized, as are the array of suspects we encounter.
Clara (Lula Cotton-Frapier) is a pretty 21-year-old leaving a small get-together with close friends late at night. A mystery figure dressed all in black approaches her on her walk home, calls her name, douses her with a flammable liquid and sets her on fire. It’s a horrific way to die, and Moll’s camera doesn’t spare us any of the grisly details.
Bastien Bouillon plays the main character, Yohan, the young and newly promoted head of the detective unit assigned to the case. He’s an intense, self-contained person who doesn’t seem to have any kind of personal life apart from the job. At night he rides his bicycle obsessively around a velodrome, a short loop track, and it’s an apt metaphor for his life, never veering outside the carefully proscribed lines.
Bouli Lanners is Marceau, a grizzled older cop on the unit and the closest thing Yohan has to a friend. They will linger after a long day to grouse about the case or Marceau’s troubled marriage, which seems headed for an end. Clara’s murder slowly begins to eat him up inside, especially some of the less savory types they run into.
It seems Clara was insecure in her love life and had flings with lots of men, including a bunch of losers who were just using her for their own ends. Several seem to be likely suspects, including a rapper who wrote a song about wanting to set Clara on fire(!), or a vagrant squatter who lives a few dozen feet away from the attack, and even sends the police a lighter he claims to have found.
The team methodically tracks down each leads but keep hitting dead ends. All the creeps have solid alibis and no physical evidence links them to the crime. Marceau is especially vexed when they can’t pin it on Vincent (Pierre Lottin), a hulking jerk with dead eyes and a history of abusing women.
A running theme of the movie is the often violent interactions between men and women, especially those with romantic entanglements. Yohan is troubled by what he sees and possibly a small part of him wonders if he harbors the potential to commit these sorts of deeds.
The cops struggle not to be judgmental of Clara’s sexual history and the low standards she kept for those she went to bed with. Later, a young female detective (Mouna Soualem) will observe that nearly all of the murders of women are perpetrated by men, and investigated by police who are almost entirely male.
Time goes on, the case goes cold. A new female judge takes an interest and presses Yohan to reopen the case. New clues are uncovered and a promising suspect emerges. Hope stirs.
“The Night of the 12th” is compelling not so much as a catch-a-killer story, but an exploration of the dank, malevolent impulses that reside in the human heart. Yohan is the pure white knight who fails again and again at his quest, until he begins to wonder if some crimes are so vile they are better left unsolved.