To this point, 2023 has been a year like no other for movies, and in this instance, that’s a good thing. The COVID nightmare years of 2020 and most of 2021 seem to be finally left in the past, and a diverse slate of movies have been released that have captured the public’s attention. From the horror-comedy pleasures of M3GAN to the animated romp The Super Mario Bros. Movie to the phenomenon known as Barbenheimer, there’s been no shortage of cinematic offerings to watch and write about.
Of course, there’s always a risk some odd movie will slip through the cracks and, unfortunately, one of 2023’s best films wasn’t properly recognized by me and the public when it was released earlier this year. Yet, there’s always a second chance to catch up and pay proper respect to movies that went unnoticed in their initial release, and for The Night of the 12th, the superb mystery film in question, its recent availability on digital platforms is a welcome opportunity to see one of the year’s best mysteries from the comfort of your own home. Here are several reasons why you should watch it.
The Night of the 12th opens with a suburban house party just ending, and a twentysomething female, Clara, walking alone in the dead of night. Clara soon encounters a masked man, who sprays lighter fluid on her and sets her on fire, killing her. The rest of the movie initially focuses on the investigation behind Clara’s death as two detectives, the recently promoted Yohan and his older partner, Marceau, question the deceased girl’s family, friends, and lovers. As the film progresses, the suspect list continues to grow, and what was once a seemingly open-and-shut case becomes frustratingly complex and increasingly hopeless.
Who killed Clara? And why? Every good mystery movie has its list of suspects the audience can choose from, but the genius of Dominik Moll’s film is that it openly questions why so many people, and especially so many men, have a credible motive for killing Clara in such a brutal fashion. It shouldn’t make sense that Clara’s lovers have such hatred for women to perform such a grotesque act, but the tragedy of The Night of the 12th is that by the end of it, it seems all too plausible that most of them are capable of pulling off such a crime.
Moll also throws in some subtle commentary about how inadequate funding for police work can completely upend an investigation and threaten to have a murderer to walk away free. The Night of the 12th has more on its mind than just straightforward thrills; it also wants to spotlight the flawed system behind crime and punishment, and the toxic hatred toward women that is allowed to exist through a mixture of denial and indifference.
Most international releases in the U.S. have already long been released in other territories, and that’s true with The Night of the 12th. The French-language film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2022 and was released last July in France to widespread critical acclaim.
The love carried over into this year, when The Night of the 12th was nominated for 10 César Awards (that’s France’s equivalent to America’s Academy Awards ceremony). The movie won an impressive 6 Césars, including Best Supporting Actor for Bouli Lanners’ haunting performance, Best Director for Moll, and Best Picture. It’s not every day that a mystery movie sweeps any awards ceremony, which tells you how good The Night of the 12th is. Need more convincing? The film currently holds a 95% critical score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Chances are, you haven’t heard of any of the cast in The Night of the 12th. That’s OK, because neither had I, and I’m a French film fan. Yet, after you watch the movie, you’ll probably never forget them. As lead detective Yohan, Bastien Bouillon is terrific at conveying the mounting frustration involved in trying to solve Clara’s murder. Yohan gets too emotionally involved, and Bouillon is effective in communicating his character’s mounting despair over the growing possibility that the case will never be solved.
As Marceau, Yohan’s older — but not at all wiser — partner, Lanners steals every scene he’s in. With his personal life coming apart and Clara’s investigation exposing him to one toxic male after another, the fed-up investigator reaches his breaking point, and it’s to Lanner’s credit that he makes his character’s anguish seem plausible and sympathetic without overdoing it.
It’s not often that a thriller showcases an absolutely beautiful location you’d sell your family to move to, but The Night of the 12th isn’t a normal thriller. The movie is set in Grenoble, France, which is sometimes referred to as as the capital of the French Alps. The setting isn’t just there for pretty visuals; it’s used effectively by Moll as a location with a quiet, beautiful surface that hides an undercurrent of violence that is there for anyone to see if anyone bothered to look hard enough.
The picturesque mountain views only contrast to the brutality of Clara’s murder, and serve as an unsettling warning to viewers: Even this paradise has its devils, and there’s no guarantee of a happy ending. Speaking of which …
It’s hard to talk about the ending to The Night of the 12th without giving too much away. In almost any other thriller, the identity of the killer is a key plot point. It’s the climax the movie needs, and the release the audience wants. As The Night of the 12th reaches its inevitable end, the director pulls off a rare trick; he successfully argues that the killer’s unmasking isn’t all that important. At least, it’s not the point of his movie, which is to go beyond a straightforward thriller narrative and become something more: a contemplative drama about the randomness of existence, a cynical satire on the banal bureaucracy of police work, and a sad portrait of people getting trapped in a toxic loop of obsession over the past.
That The Night of the 12th is all of these things, as well as a satisfying murder mystery, is ultimately what makes the movie so unique and appealing. I can’t say they sure don’t make them like this anymore, because I don’t think anyone ever did. The lasting legacy of The Night of the 12th is that it stands on its own. In an age of endless reboots, sequels, and franchises, that’s more than enough reason to watch it.
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