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12 April 2023

The Night of the 12th: a grim look at an unsolved murder

The director Dominik Moll is known for his tightly-plotted French thrillers. Now, he takes on an unsolved true crime.

By Jonathan Coe

This review will contain spoilers. The first of these spoilers will be to tell you that The Night of the 12th itself begins with a spoiler. The second of these spoilers will be to emphasise that the spoiler at the beginning of the film is not, as you might suspect, a red herring, but a genuine spoiler. “Each year,” a voice-over informs us, in measured tones, “the French police open more than 800 murder investigations. Nearly 20 per cent remain unsolved. This film relates one of them.” In other words, we really are about to spend almost two hours following a police investigation with no solution.

The reason for wondering if this announcement might be a hoax is that The Night of the 12th is the work of Dominik Moll, the German-born French director whose films generally have no loose ends. Indeed, the 60-year-old Moll is responsible for some of the most exquisitely plotted movie thrillers of the last quarter-century. In 2000’s Harry, He’s Here to Help (Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien) the hero runs into someone he’d once known slightly at school who, not happy with the direction his old friend’s life has taken, sets about reshaping it: his methods are violent, and the narrative begins to take on a sinister inevitability reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith at her best. And four years ago, in Only the Animals (Seules les bêtes) Moll adapted a novel by Colin Niel composed of different strands which turned out to dovetail perfectly, the final piece actually snapping into place in the very last shot of the film, with a simultaneous air of unpredictability and rightness that drew gasps of pleasure from audiences.

The Night of the 12th, however, is a different creature. This time the source material is Pauline Guéna’s 18.3: Une année à la PJ, a highly acclaimed account of a year in the working life of France’s judicial police in Versailles. Moll and his long-term writing partner Gilles Marchand have only adapted about 30 pages from the 500-page book: they concern the case of a young girl who is murdered late one night (in a particularly shocking way) while casually walking home from a friend’s house.

[See also: Stop with the movie remakes]

In the film, the murder has been relocated to Grenoble, and the strange combination of bland modernity and surrounding natural beauty that characterises the city is vividly captured by Patrick Ghiringhelli’s cinematography. But here, as in his other films, Moll is not interested in making the French landscape look picturesque: instead he creates his own distinctive world made up of faceless public buildings, long car journeys down underpopulated highways, visits to functional suburban houses and bleak recreation grounds.

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You can see why several of the César awards the film picked up in February were for its performances: Bastien Bouillon and Bouli Lanners are especially good as the two policemen leading the investigation, one of them young and daunted by the job, the other oppressed by melancholy and the weight of his experience. The central theme is the toll taken on such men by having to routinely deal with human nature at its very worst. The film also directly confronts the subject of violence against women, with Bouillon’s detective concluding at one especially world-weary point that the crime cannot be solved because every suspect was capable of committing it and the luckless victim was, in effect, murdered by “all men”.

There is no doubting the grim authenticity of all of this. But that authenticity is sometimes at odds with the craftsmanship on display in the film’s several chilling suspense sequences and long, well-paced interrogation scenes.

The problem remains that Moll is such a superb director of fictionalised murder mysteries that – despite the opening voice-over – it’s easy to forget that we’re not meant to be watching one this time. The Night of the 12th positions itself as an essay on the randomness of human experience and the impossible task facing a police force which is expected to find patterns amid the chaos. It reminds us uncompromisingly that, as the novelist BS Johnson once observed in a famous essay, “Life does not tell stories. It leaves myriads of ends untied, untidily.” The danger, though, is that audiences hungry for the perennial, ancient pleasures of narrative closure and resolution might still feel aggrieved to be leaving the cinema with empty stomachs.

“The Night of the 12th” is in cinemas now. Jonathan Coe was the New Statesman’s film critic 1996-97

[See also: The best films of 2022]

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This article appears in the 12 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Anniversary Issue