Watching a police-procedural homicide drama, whether it’s the grungiest of VOD potboilers or the most visionary film of the genre, Michael Mann’s silvery, dread-drenched “Manhunter,” we more or less know one thing: At the end of two hours, the grisly mystery we’ve been dunked in will have its catharsis and its resolution. We will know who the killer is, and in knowing that a kind of order will have been restored. David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” with its tantalizing ambiguities, might stand as an exception to the form — a singular winding creep-out, without the closure we’re thirsting for — yet even there you feel, by the end, that you’ve glimpsed the face of evil.
But “The Night of the 12th,” the French thriller that was nominated for 10 César Awards and won six of them, including best picture (it opens here on May 19), throws the audience a slow-motion curveball that’s intended to tinker with our dreams. And to a degree, it does. Based on a true-crime book by Pauline Guéna, the movie turns into one of the most casually authentic of investigative murder mysteries. Each time we think we’re seeing a classic suspense arc, it unravels into a dead end, and we think to ourselves: Of course. Crime in real life doesn’t necessarily happen so neatly. “The Night of the 12th” is a mostly compelling sit, though what lends the film its singular texture is that it keeps tricking us into thinking it’s a more conventional thriller than it is.
It begins with a murder that’s a gruesomely scary spectacle to behold. The victim, Clara (Lulu Cotton-Frapier), is a 21-year-old vocational-school student who lives with her parents in a province of Grenoble. On the night of October 12, 2016, she’s at her best friend’s house, where we can see that there’s a sleepover party atmosphere, but she decides to walk home by herself at 3:00 a.m. The suburban streets are deserted. Out of the shadows comes a hooded figure, who walks up to her and throws a clear liquid in her face. He then sets her on fire. As she runs to the side of the road, the entire top half of her body engulfed in flames, the sick horror of the crime gives rise to the feeling that powers the rest of the movie: that the monster who did this has to be caught.
The case is assigned to a police unit out of Grenoble, since they’re more high-level than the local rural gendarmes. We get to know the officers, and they’re a quarrelsome scuzzy crew, always busting each other’s chops. Their leader, Capt. Yohan Vivès (Bastien Bouillon), has just been promoted to take over the unit after the retirement of its commanding officer. Yohan is young, clean-cut, neutral in manner and a touch severe. The other cops are more colorful, notably Marceau (Bouli Lanners), a burly, salt-and-pepper-bearded veteran who’s gruff and likable, with a short fuse, sort of a Brendan Gleeson type, and going through a miserable divorce. So Yohan lets him stay at his place, and the two become de facto partners on the case.
A drama like this one needs suspects, and “The Night of the 12th” keeps serving them up. But here’s the catch. Each one is more sinister than the last, in a straight-out-of-central-casting way, and since the director and co-writer, Dominik Moll, stages it all with an atmosphere of unglamorous realism, in a funny way he cues us to the red-herring nature of each suspect. We keep getting sucked in only to think a minute later, “No, too obvious.” There’s the long-haired creepy video-game kid who knew Clara from their health club and slept with her a few times; when the police talk to him, he keeps giggling at inappropriate moments. Too obvious! There’s the tall rapper who recorded an angry track about Clara in which he said that he would “torch” her. Too obvious! And then there’s the lover (Pierre Lottin) who looks like a Gallic version of the young Henry Rollins, and who once broke his wife’s jaw. Too obvious, or just obvious enough?
Already, we sense a pattern. Clara, showcased in framed photographs in her parents’ home, is depicted as a kind of “perfect”-girl victim à la Laura Palmer on “Twin Peaks.” But, in fact, she was attracted to the baddest boys she could find. The film gets into some moralistic hand-wringing over the fact that her death should not be blamed on her promiscuity. We hear that and think, “Duh!” There’s a lot of talk about jealousy as a potential motive, but we saw the murder with our own eyes. This wasn’t jealousy. This was insanity. (Besides, how could the killer have known that Clara was going to be out there at 3:00 a.m.?)
Yohan, at the police station, receives an envelope addressed to “The officer in charge of the Clara case.” Inside is a disposable lighter. The audience thinks: At last, one of those twists! He must be one of those killers. Maybe, maybe not. The film keeps faking us out, and the fakery has the simultaneous effect of immersing us, disappointing us, and keeping us hooked on the case the way Yohan is hooked on it. He has a ritual of racing his bike at night, all by himself, around a banked velodrome — it’s his way of slicing through the existential agony of it all.
I like detectives who sink into the muck of their own obsession. One of the many reasons I think “Manhunter” is the greatest thriller ever made (you heard me) is that the performance of William Petersen is such a hushed tangle of acuity and doom. He’s in that serial killer’s head, and it’s killing him. Bastien Bouillon never musters that kind of intensity. Yet after three years, with the case unsolved, we see how it’s weighing Yohan down. A judge, played by the no-nonsense Anouk Grinberg, orders the case reopened, and they implement an idea that they should have done before: placing a hidden camera at Clara’s gravesite. On the anniversary of her death, the camera turns up something quite interesting.
Will this be catharsis we’re seeking? It’s honestly amazing that “The Night of the 12th” swept the Césars, because as solid as the movie is, it’s been made in a style that lands halfway between the icy freakiness of “Zodiac” and the tidy intrigue of “Law & Order.” But maybe the resonance that catapulted the film to success relates to the moment when Yohan, in reference to the killer, says, “I believe we can’t find him because all men killed Clara.” That’s a heady thought for these times. Only in France, perhaps, could it count as solving the crime.