Dominik Moll discusses how The Night of the 12th moves beyond the murder suspects into community attitudes towards victim behaviour
By © Jane Freebury
A film that French writer-director Dominik Moll is likely best known for in this country is a wickedly entertaining psychological drama about a writer who seems to feel that others are getting in the way of his work. While on holidays with his wife and children, an old school friend appears out of nowhere and sets about putting things right for him. Released in 2000, Harry, He’s Here to Help was one of those experiences on screen that you don’t easily forget.
The original French title, Harry, Un Ami Qui Vous Veut Du Bien, is a wittier take on Harry’s actions than its English title, hinting that a friend who only wants the best for you, cannot be bad. Filmgoers who haven’t witnessed the extent of Harry’s helpfulness will have to see the film to make their up their own mind.
The latest from Dominik Moll, The Night of the 12th, is a thoughtful and understated murder investigation, tightly scripted and like Harry, He’s Here to Help, a challenging experience. Loosely based on the story of a shocking crime that was committed near Paris in 2016, it belongs to the popular genre of true crime. To this day, the perpetrator has not been identified and the horrific case of a young woman set alight in the street in the early hours of the morning has joined the 20 percent of murders in France that remain unsolved.
Floats the idea that there is someone out there who knows something
“I chose to treat it from the beginning as a fiction,” Moll explained on zoom the other week. “And I want you to know that this particular crime hasn’t been talked about in the media. Nobody knows about it. It’s not like the Netflix true crime series that my colleague Gilles (Marchand) worked on, which is like the big crime story in France. Even if it was the 80s, people still talk about it.”
Co-writer Gilles Marchand has had enormous success with Who Killed Little Gregory? Another unsolved murder mystery that, like many true crime podcasts, books, films and television series, floats the idea that there is someone out there who knows something.
Moll and Marchand wrote the screenplay based on what they read in 18.3 A Year at the JP, a book by Pauline Guena, based on her observations over a year within a unit of judicial police. It was in Versailles, where the original crime took place in 2016. Although the crime took place near Paris, the film is located near Grenoble, in the foothills of the French Alps.
“When I read the two chapters in the book about that particular crime, I was particularly interested in how one of the investigators got really involved in the case. He got obsessed with it and haunted by it.
“That’s what crime does to an investigator. He is not a machine, he is a human being. So, I was more interested in recreating the effect on the investigator, the emotions within him, than in re-creating this particular true crime.”
The investigator in question is Captain Yohan Vives, played by young Bastien Bouillon. Vives isn’t an open book like his colleagues, and takes himself to the velodrome to work off stress.
Besides the investigator’s obsession with the case what else attracted Moll to this subject?
“There was this whole gallery of suspects. All fascinating, including the guy who appeared in the middle of the night and lay on the victim’s grave. That really did happen.”
What made you decide to state, a few scenes into the film, that this case has never been solved, didn’t you think it might put audience interest in jeopardy?
“Yeah, it’s true that it could have gone off in the wrong direction. The reason I put it in at the start was like a warning. To let people know that the main goal of the film was not to serve up the criminal at the end.
“It was a way of saying to the audience it’s okay to be attentive about other things. How the police work, and how men and women relate to each other.”
“Audiences are authorised to observe other things, rather than just being focused on the identity of the suspect”
Are all the suspects based on the real suspects? “Yes, they are. We took some liberties. In the book, there are even more suspects, but we didn’t put them in…The second suspect with the long hair who giggles all the time is a detail that we added.”
Such a ghastly crime must have been difficult to commit it to the screen. “It was difficult. Even if there hadn’t ever been much media coverage, it’s a real crime so there are real parents.
“During development of the screenplay, the producers thought we shouldn’t show the murder at all. We (the co-writers) felt quite strongly that we should show it, that the audience should have that image in their head but we shouldn’t do it in any way that turned it into a horrible spectacle. I came up with the idea of a wide shot where the camera doesn’t move and the victim is running through the frame at a distance.”
I have to ask him about a scene between Nanie (Pauline Serieys), who was the victim Clara’s best friend, and Captain Yohan, head of investigations. It is a show-stopper that almost knocks the film off course.
“Yes, it was a turning point because of what Nanie says and the questions that she asks. Why was it important for Yohan and his team to know who Clara had had sex with and why did they present things as though she had been asking for it?
“Yes, you can see that suddenly something is shifting in his mind, where he feels that there is something wrong in the kinds of comments some of his colleagues make. That she hung around with creeps, that she had sex with different partners.”
The Night of the 12th , nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, is not a conventional murder hunt. It doesn’t offer audiences the satisfaction of justice done, but it will get people thinking.
First published in the Canberra Times on 15 October 2022. Jane also posts on Rotten Tomatoes, as a Tomatometer-approved critic