A dramatization of true events, The Night of the 12th mines a particular subgenre of the crime picture, the “Cold Case” (its own Bush-era CBS procedural). The one it rips from headlines occurred on October 12th, 2016, where we find Clara (Lula Cotton Frappier), a happy 21-year-old girl leaving a party by herself in a sleepy suburb of France. Confronted by a masked stranger who, in the flash of an eye, throws embalming liquid and a lit match on her, her promising life is cut short as a charred corpse turns up. Tasked with solving the case are two Grenoble detectives, whose intellectual and experiential might are considered superior to the small town’s police force, and the young-ish Captain Yohan (Bastien Bouillon) and veteran cop Marceau (Bouli Lanners) form a decidedly complementary couple in their affect and appearance.
Two splashy stylistic choices––the inciting incident presented in slow-motion and a superimposition of our cops’ faces, as if they’re suddenly awakened to a crime they need to solve––grab our attention. The Night of the 12th can otherwise be described as plain yet very precise, with plenty shot-reverse shot interrogation scenes in which the cops’ accumulating frustration is palpable––chiefly from the lingering misogyny as every male suspect they interview humble-brags about their sexual exploits with Clara (including one by a well-known wife-beater).
The dead blonde girl at the center of this investigation is certainly a Laura Palmer-figure––other Twin Peaks echoes include the small mountain-town setting and a sequence that effectively uses flashlights to max creepiness––but she remains largely distant. It’s almost bold of director Dominik Moll and screenwriter Gilles Marchand to center their film so much around both the male perspective and flawed, albeit noble cop protagonists, and intriguing how Night of the 12th flips this on its head by having them get lost in the abyss of the case by simply feeling like bureaucrats: detective work more about filing reports and getting the printer to work than anything actually productive or satisfying. Though there are acknowledgements of police brutality and racism, the film doesn’t trip itself up trying to hit too many contemporary socio-political requirements in the span of a two-hour runtime.
A little less successful is the character arc involving Marceau, who seems to project the failures of his unsuccessful marriage onto the case, while Yohan’s life seems nothing but the investigation. A time leap near the end establishes just how long it’s haunted him, the kind of gambit that both pays off and doesn’t: it cuts forth in time so suddenly that it actually feels more like shaky storytelling than an effective ellipsis.
Which is perhaps why this philosophy of the unresolved doesn’t hit so hard as it did with David Fincher’s very comparable masterpiece Zodiac, but it’s certainly a worthy one all its own. And something that operates on so low a hum belies its emergence as the consensus choice at this year’s Césars, but good for something so resistant to audience expectations on doing so.
The Night of the 12th opens at NYC’s Quad Cinema on May 19 and will expand.