Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Feb 27, 2023 3:47 pm 
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". . . ce sont tous les hommes qui ont tué Clara" (All men killed Clara)

In his Cannes review Jordan Mintzer of The Hollywood Reporter describes this new film from Dominik Moll, which just won the 2023 César award, France's Oscar, for Best Picture as "a brooding, serpentine investigative drama that brings to mind movies like Zodiac and Memories of Murder, though on a more intimate scale"; [it] follows two hardened French detectives trying to solve a gruesome murder that constantly eludes their clutches." On-screen titles lay it out at the start, telling us: "French police open 800 murder cases a year. 20% remain unsolved. This is one of those investigations."

Conveying to us this maddening frustration of intensively pursuing for months, even years, a case that cannot ultimately be solved, Moll delivers a smoothly crafted, seamlessly edited film that is haunting and strangely pleasurable, a film that dramatizes the torment and dedication of the investigating officers at work. The unobtrusive look of this well-oiled film contrasts, perhaps, with its dramatic physical setting. The original case this adaptation is based on has been transferred from the Paris region to near Grenoble, in the French Alps, providing vast, austere vistas suggesting an epic task and the solitude of the "PJ" (Police Judiciare) investigators whose obsessive task yields no fruit.

Contrastingly at the start, there is jollity and esprit de corps as, in a pleasant and informal gathering, we meet first the investigative team of the French Police Judiciaire. Touranchau (Nicolas Jouhet), the old "chef du groupe," retires and passes the torch on to Le capitaine Yohan Vivès (Bastien Boulon). The younger, almost boyish Vivès will lead the investigation that is the focus of the film, the inquest into the death of a 21-year-old woman. The methods are contemporary. This is a world of malfunctioning software, of Facebook meetings and omnipresent smartphones. The PJ staff tap many phones and use remote cameras. But the work is earth-bound, and there's a freak-out early on when a copy machine jams and can't be fixed by the officer.

After we meet the police we meet the victim and the crime and the growing list of men somehow involved with her who might be the murderers and for a while are suspects. She is Clara Royer (Lula Cotton-Frapier), whom we see murdered, suddenly set fire to with gasoline and a lighter walking home through a park after a party. She is young, happy, in a great mood. Her last words are a joyous declaration of eternal love to her best girlfriend. And then the torching, sudden, out of the dark, strangely, in a horrible way, almost beautiful. Clara becomes a human flame, running off into the darkness of the summer evening.

The investigation leads to a bewildering succession of men who have flowed in and out of the "uncomplicated" Clara's life. There is Wesley Fontana (Baptiste Perais), her current boyfriend. There is Jules Leroy (Jules Porier), her longhaired, youthful "sex friend." There is Denis Douet (Benjamin Blanchy), a marginal jobless type she had sex with; her bgf, Stéphanie Béguin, "Nanie" ( Pauline Serieys) was ashamed to mention him, and this covering up makes her seem suspicious. Nanie, the best source on Clara's men, isn't very forthcoming.

There is Vincent Caron (Pierre Lottin), arrested for assault of a woman, who turns out to have been - he does not deny it - another temporary sex partner of Clara who turns up by leaving a bloody T shirt at the "shrine" for her. His girlfriend Nathalie Bardot (Camille Rutherford) covers for him. Gabi Lacazette (Nathanaël Beausivoir) is the rangy, bearded black rapper who wrote the rap threatening to torch Clara. Mats (David Murgia) is the wide-eyed mystery man who turns up on the third anniversary of Clara's death.

The viewer's constant companions of course are a pair, good cop-bad cop if you will, who head the investigation of the girls' murder. Marceau (Bouli Lanners) is the problem partner, unrestrained and stressed by a disintegrating marriage. The younger, solemn investigator is the group leader, Yohan Vivès. Periodic interludes where Yohan rides a bike around a vélodrome at night underline his loner, determined aspect. He also fit, cool. But dangerously obsessive, perhaps. He will have to switch to the open road.

The beauty of this superficially detailed, basically simple film is in two things. First, that this is an unresolved case: it shows how tormenting that is to the cops - and to Judge Beltrame (Anouk Grinberg) the examining magistrate (juge d'instruction), a woman, who emerges as a newly involved party later in the story. Thus we are invited over and over to ponder the crime and the victim. Secondly, this exploration brings out (a little over-explicitly, perhaps; but can it be anything but explicit?) the ways in which violence and gender are intertwined. Thus Yohan arrives at the conclusion that any man connected with Clara could have killed her, indeed any man could have killed her. This he delivers in a little speech to Judge Beltrame when she first summons him back to work with her on the case again: any one of the male suspects could have killed this beautiful, helpless young woman. In a sense they all did it, because any of them could have: "ce sont tous les hommes qui ont tué Clara" -"It's all men who killed Clara." "L'enfer, c'est les hommes," as one critic has quipped."C'est quelque chose qui clache entre les hommes et les femmes," "there's something wrong between men and women."

And so like Woman Talking or She Said this becomes absolutely timely. This is another current cinematic contribution to the gender wars, a #MeToo film, and a good one. We see why Moll and his co-writer chose this case to adapt from the 500-page volume by Pauline Guéna, 18.3 – une année à la PJ/18.3 - a Year at the PJ. This is fertile material. Compared to the fanatical work of David Fincher, La Nuit du 12 may pale a bit for some viewers. But this is different; by intention partly a thriller but also very much a meditation, an action film that makes you think. In Moll's oeuvre, it ranks up at the top with With a Friend Like Harry (2000) and Lemming (2005), and at his best, Moll is memorable indeed. A masterful film, not to be missed.

La Nuit du 12/The Night of the 12th, 115 mins., debuted in competition at Cannes May 20, 2022. A Film Movement release (France) July 13, 2022; AlloCiné press rating 4.4 (88%). Screened for this review as part of the FLC-UniFrance Rendez-Vous with French Cinema:
Tuesday, March 7, 2023 at 3:30pm
Friday, March 10 at 6:15pm (Q&A with Dominik Moll)

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