Sunday, May 19, 2024

Obsession and Sexism Explored in ‘The Night of the 12th’

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I am always fascinated by films that explore topics without using buzzwords of the time. They are often more fascinating because it feels less like a message movie and more like a mediation. Movies such as Dominik Moll’s The Night of the 12th can explore beyond the bounds of the usual “patriarchy bucks” because its characters aren’t ciphers but people.

Moll’s The Night of the 12th is a police procedural examining obsession. A well-worn genre, it is, nonetheless, one of my favorites. But here, Moll, who co-wrote the script with Gilles Marchand, explores men slowly realizing how horrible it is. But it also doubles mediates on the time-honored cinematic motif of “obsession” with the lead detective Yohan Vives (Bastien Boullion) refusing to let the unsolved case go. This isn’t a spoiler; the opening title card tells us this.

night of the 12th
Stephanie (Pauline Serieys) and Detective Yohan Vives (Bastien Bouillon)

Based on a non-fiction book, “18.3-Une annee a la PJ” by Puline Guena, The Night of the 12th looks at the case of a young girl Clara (Lula Cotton-Frapier), who was set on fire. Her death sets off an investigation that will haunt the newly appointed lead detective of an elite crime squad. Throughout the case, the men will be forced to reckon with attitudes and conceptions they don’t have words for. It’s in the silent struggle that The Night of the 12th comes alive.

Even though the girl was set on fire, her death and assault carry with them the undertones of rape—a fact highlighted by the steadily growing number of sexual partners Clara had. The men of the Grenoble Criminal Squad become increasingly frustrated at how Clara refuses to be, for them-a perfect victim. But there’s never a scene in which they talk about this outright.

Moll and Marchand’s script cleverly lives between the lines. Yet, at times the script will stop playing coy and be frank in a jarring way. Such as when Yohan speaks to one of Clara’s friends, Stephanie (Pauline Serieys), about why she left off a man from her list of men Clara knew. “What difference does it make? It wasn’t her. You don’t get it. She did nothing.”

Bouillon’s Yohan is a fresh-faced leader, newly assigned, and already he has caught the case that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Still, without realizing it, he and the rest of the Grenoble Crime Squad have subtly begun looking at Clara’s crime differently. No one says she deserved it. But some other detectives have commented that they know girls “like her.” The detectives are trying to solve the case, but the lens they are looking at is getting ever so slightly shifted that they barely notice, making it so disconcerting. 

Moll and his cameraperson Patrick Ghiringhelli craft a dream-like procedural. Interrogations are mixed with reports that somebody must fill out in triplicate and printers that must be jerry-rigged because of budget cuts. There are enough stumbling blocks in the day to day of a detective; confirmation bias seems like just another log for the fire.

Ghiringhelli’s camera cool distance creates a haunting, almost Lynchian, vibe as Yohan and the other detectives chase down one lead after another, only for each to wind up in a dead-end. The answers are so tantalizingly close yet always just out of reach.

It doesn’t help that many of the detectives are having troubles at home and do not realize that they are letting their home life bleed into the investigation—detectives like Marceau (Bouli Lanners), who is divorcing his wife, Nathalie. The reason why is complicated and tragic, but his desire for justice might also stem from what Marceau sees as his failing.

Yohan senses this. He tries his best to steer both Marceau and the others, but he seems only to begin to realize the depth of misogyny and how it affects everything he knows. Marceau and Yohan will eventually move in together, and Yohan will witness a deterioration of a man he once admired but is unsure if he even likes. The two men are like a deathly, tragic, odd couple. The young idealist and the grizzled cynic are trying to solve a case of a young girl whose murder and violation seem so alien yet so matter-of-fact to them.

Bouillon’s freshly scrubbed face contrasted with Lanners’s bearded, grizzled scowl that roots the movie in its internal tug of war. Both men are searching for something but don’t know what it is. Their late-night conversations show precisely what it means by “systemic issues.” The crime squad may not be corrupt, but it is not a shining beacon of justice. 

And, like, that it’s three years later. Clara’s case is still unsolved, Macau has retired, and Yohan is still the head of the Crime Squad, which now has one woman on it, Nadia (Mouna Soualem). Yohan is summoned by a judge, a woman, who asks him to reopen Clara’s case. Their conversation is blistering, straightforward, and haunting. It’s one of two conversations so layered that it is worth seeing the movie for them alone.

Yohan tells the judge, “Something’s amiss between men and women.” It’s the thesis of the movie. 

night of the 12th
Yohan (Bouillon) and Nadia (Mouna Soualem)

The other conversation comes later between Yohan and Nadia. Alone on a stakeout, they discuss why she joined the elite squad. Her answer flatters him but also condemns him in a way he wasn’t expecting. Ghiringhelli frames Soualem’s face in the darkness, the only light from a streetlight outside the van. Like a Carravagio painting, she sits there, putting to words the uncomfortable truth Yohan had been stumbling towards for years. 

But it brings them no closer to Clara’s killer.

The Night of the 12th spends much of its time between the lines. But it’s the moments where it drops the pretenses and speaks the truth is where it becomes a bracing and gripping procedural. More than anything, Moll understands that part of the problem isn’t that the system is broken but that the people inside are too.

Images courtesy of Film Movement

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