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What happened 'The Night of the 12th'? A murder remains a mystery in this French film

After her friend Clara is killed walking home, Nanie (Pauline Serieys) is questioned by a police officer (Bastien Bouillon), who has taken over the local homicide squad.
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After her friend Clara is killed walking home, Nanie (Pauline Serieys) is questioned by a police officer (Bastien Bouillon), who has taken over the local homicide squad.

The world is a big, unruly, ambiguous place. Which helps explain the boundless appeal of murder mysteries. Whether it's Hercule Poirot exercising his famous little grey brain cells or all those CSI teams extracting DNA samples, mysteries offer the reassurance of seeing the messy realities of life get sorted out. When the murderer is caught, we feel that order is, at least temporarily, restored.

Of course, in reality, things don't always work out so happily. The reverberations of this fact rumble through The Night of the 12th, a skillfully turned French crime picture that swept the César awards, the French version of the Oscars.

Made by veteran director Dominik Moll, the movie is adapted from the work of Pauline Guéna who spent a year following members of the Paris police. Focusing on a single, real-life murder investigation she covers, Moll has created a film that keeps looking like the conventional police procedural that it actually isn't.

The action has been transposed to the picturesque Alpine city of Grenoble, where a vibrant student named Clara is walking home one night when a faceless man steps out of the darkness and sets her on fire. As it happens, this takes place on the very day that a police officer named Yohan — played by a glum faced Bastien Bouillon — has taken over the local homicide squad. Along with his bearded older sidekick Marceau — terrifically played by Bouli Lanners — Yohan sets about doing what the police do in seemingly every cop show: examining the corpse, gathering forensic evidence, informing distraught loved-ones and questioning suspects.

As it happens there are a few, for Clara has had a series of sexual relationships with guys who weren't really all that nice. These include a bartender who was cheating with her on his girlfriend, a rapper who has written a song about setting Clara on fire, and a convicted domestic abuser 20 years her senior. Yohan and his crew interrogate them all, but as time passes, Yohan grows increasingly haunted by his desire to bring Clara's killer to justice. But we know something he doesn't. You see, Moll has told us up front that 20% of French homicides never get solved, and that this case is one of them.

Indeed, The Night of the 12th belongs to the category of mysteries about the failure to solve a crime, a fascinating sub-genre that includes the great Sicilian police novels of Leonardo Sciascia, David Fincher's film Zodiac, and Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder, the best cop movie ever made.

Such stories replace the familiar satisfaction of seeing the murder solved with an exploration of the personal costs of failing to do so — guilt, obsession and a rending sense of futility, embodied in this film by Yohan, a dry, monk-like figure who constantly pedals his bike in furious circles around the local velodrome.

Yohan's not the only one with a feeling of futility. You sense the incessant grind of police work in all the members of his team, from the gallows humor with which they face the latest grisly sight to their reasonable complaints about broken equipment and endless paperwork. "We fight evil by writing reports," says Marceau, a sensitive man who wanted to teach French literature but wound up as a cop who quotes the poet Verlaine and dreams of a different life.

What makes this particular investigation so difficult is that, Yohan thinks, "Something is amiss between men and women." Without ever hammering away at it, the story is a study in misogyny. Marked by sexual attitudes that run from contempt to crazed infatuation, any one of the suspects could've murdered Clara, who was killed, says her friend Nanie, simply because she was a girl. The suspects' outlook finds an echo in the the joky, hypermasculine homicide squad, one of whom suggests that it's not surprising that a young woman who keeps hooking up with bad boys might wind up getting killed.

Now, The Night of the 12th is merely a solid movie not a great one, but it shows that French cinema — which has tended to lag in awareness about race and gender — is catching up with the ideas of the #MeToo era. It suggests that what makes this murder case especially interesting is not whodunnit, but the sexual politics underlying the crime and the investigation. As the first female detective in Yohan's division tells him, "Isn't it weird that most crimes are committed by men and mostly men are supposed to solve them?"

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.