Credit: Haut et Court
by Michael Sicinski Film

Night of the 12th — Dominik Moll

May 19, 2023

The team of director Dominik Moll and screenwriter Gilles Marchand broke onto the scene with their first collaboration, 2000’s With a Friend Like Harry… The opening night film at that year’s Cannes, it was also selected for competition, although it was overshadowed by the plethora of masterworks premiering at the festival that year. Nevertheless, it provided a solid showcase for Sergi López as Harry, an old friend of Michel (Laurent Lucas), performing favors for Michel that become increasingly sociopathic. Harry wasn’t much, but it did suggest that Moll might reasonably be an heir to the Chabrol tradition, producing tightly wound thrillers that dissected the bourgeoisie.

The team’s second collaboration, 2005’s Lemming, was not quite as successful, but it did confirm that Moll might evolve into a genre filmmaker of some note. As it happens, he has spent the intervening years spinning his wheels a bit, helming such trifles as The Monk, a bit of Gothic bombast featuring Vincent Cassel in a battle against Satan, and more recently, Only the Animals, a scrambled-chronology policier fixated on chance but beset by contrivance. In light of this, The Night of the 12th is certainly an improvement, although that “next Chabrol” idea continues to recede in the rearview mirror. Like so many films and TV shows these days, Night of the 12th is based on a real crime, and follows the Grenoble investigative squad as they try, and fail, to piece it together.

The victim is Clara (Lula Cotton-Frapier), a 21-year-old woman who was doused with gasoline and lit aflame as she made her way home after a party. The lead detective, Capt. Vivès (Bastien Bouillon), explores the case from various angles, speaking to a host of Clara’s ex-lovers, all of whom seem to have had motive for murdering her. One (Baptiste Perais) insists that Clara was a clinger, and he slept with her out of pity. Another (Jules Porier) was so jealous of her other boyfriends that he recorded a rap cut about burning her alive. Still another (Benjamin Blanchy) claims that Clara kept her trysts with him a secret out of shame. And so it goes.

The main problem with Night of the 12th is that Moll and Marchand (adapting a book by Paula Guéna) seem to think their audience is as incompetent as the police. Every primary theme of the film is stated outright in the dialogue, to make sure we don’t miss anything along the way. An insensitive cop remarks that Clara got around, which prompts the film’s second full discussion regarding victim-blaming and misogyny. And near the film’s end, Vivès remarks to a magistrate (Anouk Grinberg) that, in fact, “all men killed” Clara.

These are not dumb ideas. In a sense, this is the ultimate takeaway from Bruno Dumont’s L’humanité, and Night of the 12th’s concern with the obsessive psychology of damaged cops recalls David Fincher’s Zodiac. But those films understood the power of subtext. The Night of the 12th insists on signposting its every move, to such a degree that Moll doesn’t seem to really need the viewer at all. In the end, this seems to be an investigation that was passed around the precinct until it landed on the desk of Capt. Obvious.

Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 6.