Film

The French police procedural The Night of the 12th is purportedly an exposé of misogyny, but in the end it’s all about the man. By Christos Tsiolkas.

The Night of the 12th

A scene from The Night of the 12th.
A scene from The Night of the 12th.
Credit: Haut et Court / Potential Films

Only a few minutes into watching the new French police thriller The Night of the 12th, my confidence in the filmmaker’s intentions and skills had already begun to waver. It’s early in the morning of October 12, 2016, and a young woman, Clara (Lula Cotton-Frapier), leaves her friend’s house in a suburb of Grenoble. Seconds after she records a loving message to her friend on her phone, she is assailed by a masked figure who pours petrol over her and sets her alight.

The violence is filmed in such a pedestrian manner – a lazily executed long-shot of the tormented burning woman that recalls the gracelessness of early music videos – that the terror and shock that we should be experiencing is muted. My apprehension wasn’t assuaged by the next few scenes. Police captain Yohan (Bastien Bouillon) arrives at the crime scene, and it is his duty to inform Clara’s parents of their daughter’s murder. The mother starts screaming and hitting the cops, and though her reaction makes narrative sense it is filmed with such carelessness, the camera at a perfunctory distance, that the actor’s frenzy has no emotional charge.

The film is about Yohan’s increasing alienation from his own vocation, as the police investigation fails to find any conclusive evidence pointing to Clara’s killer. His disaffection is further compounded by the casual misogyny of his fellow police officers, who become fixated on Clara’s sexual history. Ex-lovers, fuck buddies and casual hook-ups are interrogated, all of them with alibis and all of them scandalously self-involved. Only Clara’s best friend Stéphanie, played with subdued dignity by Pauline Serieys, conveys any grief over the killing. Answering yet another question about her friend’s sexual past, she snaps at Yohan, “She was killed because she was a girl.” That flash of anger is the one moment of genuine emotive force in the whole movie.

Two great themes play out in this indolent film. The script, by Gilles Marchand and director Dominik Moll, is loosely based on a book by Pauline Guéna about a year she spent observing the work of a criminal investigation department in France. Guéna wrote of the agony many of the police she interviewed experienced when confronted by unsolvable murders. The other equally compelling subject is the wretched inevitability of violence committed by men against women.

The Night of the 12th fails to integrate these two themes. When we first see Yohan, he is cycling furiously at a velodrome. The ominous music and the grim fixed stare on Bouillon’s face already alert us to his unhappiness. An older colleague, Marceau (Bouli Lanners), jokingly refers to his relentless cycling as being akin to the manic activity of a caged hamster – one indication of the unsophistication of the writing. Bouillon’s acting is one-note and lacking in humour, so from the beginning he seems disillusioned with his life as a police captain. We have no understanding of why this particular case undermines his faith in his work, nor do we get a sense of when he becomes alert to the sexism of his colleagues. The prosaic screenplay does him no favours but his performance too is lacking in imagination.

This banality in execution and performance affects the police procedural elements of the plot, as well as undermining the seriousness of its purported exposé of deep-seated misogyny. There is a series of monotonous interrogations of Clara’s exes – one white, one black, one middle class, one underclass – as if the filmmakers are conveying some great insight into the pervasiveness of sexism. But given the rudimentary writing, all we observe is the apparent incompetence of the cops: no lead ever seems to be followed.

The actors are reduced to playing stereotypes and almost none of them makes any lasting impression. The exception is Pierre Lottin as a particularly scungy former casual partner of Clara and a man with a long history of spousal abuse and random violence. Lottin plays him with dangerous intensity, but also manages to convey the seductive masculine authority that such men can wield. Lottin casually asserts a tender observation of Clara  and, because of the clichéd characterisations in the rest of the film, it is a moment of real surprise.

A few years after Clara’s murder, a judge (Anouk Grinberg) contacts Yohan to canvass the reopening of the cold case. The inane exchanges between her and Bouillon are cringeworthy, with the judge sympathetically nodding along to Yohan’s existential male guilt. Grinberg looks uncomfortable and distressed throughout. It’s a terrible performance but I found myself having a certain sympathy for the actor. She knows that the grafting of feminist rhetoric onto this potboiler is a cynical choice by the filmmakers.

I don’t think I’m being unfair. In 2000, Moll directed a sharp and sexy thriller called Harry, He’s Here to Help. That film was also co-written with Marchand. Sergi López played the eponymous character, a psychotic criminal who weasels himself into the lives of a bourgeois family and begins to enact murderous havoc. Indebted to Hitchcock and classic Hollywood noir, that film had a genuine subversive power in how it upended the traditional conventions of the genre. Harry was the film’s “femme fatale”. Big-bellied, unashamedly sweaty and sensual, López made Harry scarily attractive. It has been more than two decades since I’ve seen the film, but I still recall that performance and the gleeful dark humour. Like The Night of the 12th, that film was an exercise in genre, but one felt the filmmakers’ delight in transgressing conventions and gender stereotypes. There’s no humour in the new film and no zeal. It’s rote filmmaking.

Maybe more shocking than the cynicism at the heart of The Night of the 12th is its largely positive and even laudatory critical reception. Granted, Moll is a competent director, and the film’s sluggishness is more a matter of tone than pace. He keeps individual scenes short and the crisp editing by Laurent Rouan is the most effective element of the film. Yet it’s shocking that its combination of enervation and smugness has been met with such uncritical acceptance. I can’t help thinking that critics are responding to the grafted-on sexual politics rather than to the film itself. Maybe I’m being extra harsh because I saw it the week that the great French director Jean-Luc Godard died. Godard revolutionised the language of film and is one of the key architects of our collective language of cinema. For Godard, form and intent were inseparable.

Clearly Moll and his collaborators weren’t interested in making a radical film, a work that fractures and destabilises the conventional temporal and subjective tropes of narrative cinema. When such artistic risks pay off, as they do in Godard’s Le Mépris or La Chinoise or Notre Musique, the results are exhilarating, transformative. Moll’s and Marchand’s intentions are more straightforward: to make a mainstream film policier, and to lace it with contemporary sexual politics that lend it greater commercial currency. Even within these conventional limits, the poverty of their creativity is infuriating. There’s no attempt to challenge or subvert the traditional masculine gaze, which is why the feminist rhetoric sinks like a stone. The solemn music, the grim-faced actors and the heavy-handed dialogue are all meant to convey that we are watching something serious and important. But the plodding direction and the dull writing give the game away. No one’s heart or passion was in this film.

At the end of The Night of the 12th, Yohan is seemingly liberated. He’s left the velodrome and is cycling on a beautiful alpine path, laughing. It’s the most elating shot in the film but I sat there unsmiling. Moll began with the horror of a young woman being torched alive and he couldn’t muster the energy or the imagination or the charity to grant that horrific moment any awe or force. We never have any real sense of Clara’s tragedy.

Maybe making the last shot that of Bouillon’s self-satisfied and cheerful face is exactly the right way to end. This film was never about Clara. The emperor still has no clothes and fools are still blithely cheering. 

The Night of the 12th opens in selected Australian cinemas on October 12.

ARTS DIARY

CULTURE Melbourne Fringe Festival

Venues throughout Melbourne, October 6-23

FESTIVAL Nature Festival

Venues throughout South Australia, October 6-16

EXHIBITION taypani milaythina-tu: Return to Country

Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart, until February 12

OPERA Awakening Shadow

Carriageworks, Sydney, until October 7

CLASSICAL Sibelius’ Second Symphony

Perth Concert Hall, October 7-8

LAST CHANCE

VISUAL ART Chiharu Shiota: The Soul Trembles

Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, until October 3

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 1, 2022 as "Male angst".

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