June Butler looks into Dominik Moll’s fictionalised version of a real unsolved case.
Dominik Moll and Gilles Marchand based their screenplay The Night of the Twelfth on a non-fiction book (18.3 – Une année à la PJ) written by Pauline Guena.
The Night of the Twelfth is based on the true story of an unsolved femicide and the ceaseless endeavours of a rookie police detective in trying to bring the perpetrator to justice. Unfairly, the victim’s romantic personal life is held up for scrutiny and it is implied that the woman’s behaviour in the lead-up to her death, somehow justified the method of her demise. What commences as a professional inquiry, soon becomes a rather more personal odyssey for Yohan Vivès (Bastien Bouillon) as he tries to separate fact from fiction.
Clara Royer (Lula Cotton-Frapier) spends the evening with close friends before deciding to walk home alone in the small hours of the morning. Along the short journey, Clara face-times her friend and effusively announces that she has the best pals in the world. Blowing kisses to them, she ends the call. Seconds later, a hooded stranger steps out of the shadows and calls Clara’s name. The individual throws petrol over her, and while Clara gasps for breath, a lighter is produced and the gasoline ignited. A surreal scene ensues with Clara fleeing for her life, aflame and burning bright. Time is suspended as silent witnesses view the brutal struggle in the last fleeting moments of Clara’s existence. No more is seen of the mysterious man who accosted her and so callously took Clara’s life. The following morning, Clara’s charred remains are located. The police are called and an investigation commences.
The group of gendarmes overseeing the murder enquiry are a close-knit motley bunch – a female officer joins the squad and encounters levels of misogyny from the other male officers. The pensive Yohan Vivès has just taken over the team from a retiring captain. Marceau (Bouli Lanners) is his older hot-headed sidekick and offers support and advice to Vivès as the new chief tries to build rapport with his crew and navigate through a minefield of what are incredibly headstrong personalities. The pressure of knowing or guessing who is responsible for this heinous crime, becomes overwhelming for both Vivès and Marceau as they gradually ramp up a list of suspects. Vivès is measured and stoic in his approach. Marceau employs increasingly aggressive tactics whilst interviewing suspects and feels this is the only method available to force a confession – a technique Vivès does not agree with. It becomes apparent that among the key people who could have had a hand in Clara’s death, each one has equal opportunity to have committed the act. Vivès becomes frustrated with his inability to advance the inquiry and makes his anger known to Marceau.
The Night of the Twelfth asks several troubling questions – none of which there are any solid answers for. Despite Clara and her friends enjoying what appears to be freedom of expression, they are bound by societal confines. Nanie (Pauline Serieys), one of Clara’s closest friends, maintains that her reticence in being forthcoming about Clara’s romantic liaisons, is to protect Clara from malicious gossip. It speaks volumes about the attitude towards public shaming of women in rural areas. Nanie makes the point that Clara was flesh and blood and the amount of lovers she had should not have impacted on Clara’s right to justice. Nor of Clara seemingly being blamed for her brutal murder – as if she deserved what happened to her. The men in Clara’s life are violent, nonchalant, deceitful, and aggressively disrespectful to women. Women, by contrast, are dismissed by these same men as inanimate, helpless, unworthy of being ‘seen’. The obvious objective of the film is to attempt to bring a criminal to justice but undertones of casual brutality against women are promoted and allowed to remain unchallenged. This is the essential message in the film. Until such attitudes are changed, many women like Clara will die. Of Clara’s lovers, not one expresses sorrow for her death, and all are imbued with a blatant indifference suggesting that for them at least, life simply goes on. The tragedy of Clara’s passing causes barely any response from the men who would have known her most intimately.
Ultimately, the fight against an endemic undercurrent of misogyny rises to a voiceless roar by demanding answers to this most awful of deaths. The responses don’t come but still, the debate commences – which is something.
The depiction of such a sensitive topic is dealt with exceedingly well by director Dominik Moll. He chose wisely when casting Bastien Bouillon and Bouli Lanners. Bouillon, in particular, gives an astounding performance as the quietly sensitive Yohan Vivès. The Night of the Twelfth will give viewers reason to reflect on the inhumanity of innocence and the fragility of life. It’s an astounding film and one that is well worth watching.
The Night of the Twelfth is in cinemas from 31st March 2023.