Sunday 2 April 2023

Watching the detectives: "The Night of the 12th"

The German-born, French-based writer-director Dominik Moll first announced himself at the turn of the millennium as a skilled genre tinkerer, capable of opening up new lines of thought and sight within familiar narrative frameworks. Initially, Moll and regular screenwriting collaborator Gilles Marchand set about this task with a certain postmodern levity - winking to Hitchcock with 2000's Harry, He's Here to Help and to Buñuel with 2005's Lemming - before seriousness set in as the pair reached middle age and began contemplating the state of the world. The Night of the 12th, deemed so serious that it all but swept the board at the recent Césars, is Moll's attempt to reintroduce the complication purged from streaming TV's too-slick-by-half true-crime entertainments; an opening title card seeks to get out in front of any viewer frustration by warning us we're watching a fictionalised representation of one of the troublingly high percentage of cases unsolved in France every year. (The inspiration is Pauline Guéna's non-fiction book 18.3 — Une année à la PJ, published in 2020.)

We fall in with a squad of detectives who've got plenty going on even before they're called out to a small town at the foot of the Alps; they're there to investigate the murder of a 21-year-old torched by an assailant as she walked home from a party in the early hours. For rapidly promoted neatfreak Yohan (newcomer Bastien Bouillon, giving strong Gallic Reece Shearsmith vibes), the issue is a sudden realisation of the grave responsibility he's taken on, and it manifests in his struggle to coherently inform the victim's loved ones that their girl is no more. (It's a procedural where even the first few steps are somewhat wobbly.) Meanwhile his partner, the veteran Marceau (Bouli Lanners, bedrock of Francophone character acting), is nagged by the knowledge his wife of many years is leaving him for the younger man who's finally got her pregnant. Given that the year is 2023, it's initially quite jolting to encounter a work of art so unapologetically aligned with the boys (and this squad, pointedly, is all boys) in blue. Patrick Ghiringhelli's camera almost literally perches on the detectives' shoulders as they poke around the corpse and head up the garden path to break news of the bereavement. But Moll and Marchand's aim here isn't to make these detectives heroic so much as to make them newly human: to recognise and dramatise the conditions that lead these men to form the judgements, and make the mistakes, that they do.

This two-man internal affairs unit use the dead-end case at the film's centre to stage their own investigation, and to study varyingly unhappy men searching for a closure and certainty they're not going to find this time around. The detectives flounder - suspect after suspect passes through the squad's cramped rabbit warren of offices without a single charge sticking - but Moll's bloodhound-camera knows exactly what it's sniffing out. Some time into The Night of the 12th, you start to notice how the two investigative leads might well inspire a suspicion of their own: Yohan an uptight loner cycling laps of the local velodrome to let off steam, Marceau a textbook example of the middle-aged man with vast internalised reserves of resentment and rage. For them, the sexually active young victim is a foreign object, inspiring equal parts obsession, condemnation and incomprehension; listen, too, for the dismissive way the squad's bruised divorcees react to the one member in their ranks who retains any measure of optimism around love and marriage. This is what Moll and Marchand are getting at, I think: how easy it is for any such inquiry into human behaviour to be led astray, or led entirely off-point, by past experience. Marceau nears a major breakthrough - at once professional and personal - when mid-film he sighs "we do a weird job".

Amid these notably sorry burnouts, what strikes you is the blazing clarity of Moll's own survey; the film represents a marked return to form after 2019's problematically murky Only the Animals. It's mostly a matter of excellent writing, playing and direction - the qualities that have sustained the procedural for a century or more. We get a quiet, appreciable sense of place - a small community huddled under a peak, clinging to whatever scraps of warmth and comfort they can find. Yet Moll turns our gaze away from stone-cold evidence and instead refocuses it on those abrasive and/or fraying personalities puzzling over it all: men wearing away at themselves and one another, and in extreme cases annihilating those around them, and women trying to chip away at this mountainous indifference, to greater or lesser effect. (Given the unhealthy maleness of the milieu, Marchand and Moll deserve credit for ensuring their distaff roles - headed by Anouk Grinberg as a quizzical judge - register as they do.) Accept that the plot turns circles like a cop in a velodrome, and with each lap, The Night of the 12th becomes only more thoughtful and lived-in; in its roundabout way, it does carry us somewhere satisfying - or, more precisely, to that borderland where satisfying meets openly provocative. Like a lot of awards winners, Moll's film catches a mood, a certain chill in the air: it senses that at this moment (and that notionally specific title could be applied anywhere, at any time), and with regard to cops and men alike, we may be dealing with more than just a handful of rotten apples.

The Night of the 12th is now playing in selected cinemas.

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