Dominik Moll and Gilles Marchand on the Intrigue of an Unsolved Mystery in “The Night of the 12th”

Ever since Dominik Moll rose to international prominence at the turn of the century with the thriller “With a Friend Like Harry,” a tantalizing takeoff on Hitchcock in which a reunion of high school acquaintances leads to murder, the filmmaker has understood a truth about the nature of crime that few others allow themselves to, accepting the fact that for those involved the ramifications never end. It was only natural then that when reading Pauline Guéna’s account of her time embedded with the French police, “18.3 – A Year With the Crime Squad,” Moll was attracted to a case that was never solved, coming to haunt its lead detective as much as any of the deceased’s loved ones when the case involved a young woman with no known adversaries who is found burned beyond recognition.

Moll and longtime collaborator Gilles Marchand take great care in their latest, “The Night of the 12th” to get audiences to invest into the mystery of what happened to Clara Royer (Lula Cotton-Frapier), but become equally concerned with the course the investigation takes as one of the first for newly minted captain Yohan Vivès (Bastien Bouillon), who feels he has much to prove beyond the facts of the case at hand. He is saddled with Marceau (Bouli Lanners), a partner who also can’t leave his personal baggage at the door, increasingly upset by the prospect of soon separating from his wife and taking that anger into the interrogation room. It isn’t just the difficulty of nailing down a suspect that grips Yohan, but navigating all the requirements of such an inquiry that require vastly different parts of the brain, being sensitive to the emotions of family and friends of the victim and tip-toeing around any implication they could be involved while remaining engaged in the far more clinical work of preparing a case for the court with all the bureaucratic maneuvering it entails.

However, “The Night of the 12th” is as intriguing throughout as it is intricate, watching Yohan and Marceau attempt to make sense of the unthinkable and for as much frustration as there is in an unresolved mystery, Moll gives cold comfort in the acknowledgement that there are some parts of ourselves that can never be known. After the film entranced audiences in its native France where it won the Cesar Award for best picture, as well as prizes for Moll and Marchand as best director and screenwriter, respectively, it is now arriving in the States and the duo who were in New York earlier this year for Film at Lincoln Center’s Rendezvous with French Cinema spoke about what attracted them to adapting a particular section of Guéna’s nonfiction tome, getting comfortable with leaving certain things unanswered and how cinema’s capability for the surreal can allow them to get at a greater truth.

The film only concerns the last two chapters of Pauline Guéna’s nonfiction book this was based on – how did you hone in on a story?

Dominik Moll: It’s not a novel. It’s almost a documentary because she spent one year with the crime squad in Versailles day by day and observed them in their work and life, so the book [has] a lot of details on a lot of investigations and in different [areas] — with the drug squad, the crime squad, so I was curious to read it, because it was really a view from the inside. Then the last two chapters, she talks about this one particular investigation and what I thought would be interesting for a film was [how] she described one of the investigators really getting obsessed with that case, especially because it’s a case that he cannot solve. Usually with a crime story, you have a crime at the beginning, and at the end you give the criminal to the audience, and everybody goes home happy. But the fact that it was an unsolved case made it much more interesting and challenging — it was a different way to look at a crime story and to observe other things.

Of course, we were not the first ones to do it. Fincher’s done it in “Zodiac,” and “Memories of Murder” also does it, but it doesn’t happen that often, so the fact that it was an unresolved case was a really important element, and to show the evolution of the character of Yohan, the main investigator throughout that case. Then when we started working on it with Gilles, we saw that because it was the murder of a young woman, [there’s] this whole theme of men’s violence towards women and questioning masculinity, because the police is still almost an all-male world, [which] was not that present in the book, although of course a woman was writing about a man’s world, so it was there somehow but very much hidden in a way and we tried to make that emerge.

When you had that breakthrough, did that inform how you wanted to position these partners?

Dominik Moll: Yes and no, because the contrast between them was there actually right from the beginning — the fact that the character of Marceau is being left by his wife and that he feels frustrated because he wanted to be a father, and then his wife suddenly becomes pregnant of another guy and he questions his manhood, so that all contributes to his anger whereas Yohan is somebody who obviously decided not to have a family life because he felt it couldn’t work with his police work, so he decides to be almost like a monk, living alone in an apartment. But it’s true that all the scenes — even [with] the suspects and the way they behave, and all the other colleagues within the police group and their innocent remarks, like one of the guys asking, “Yohan, is the judge pretty?” — we see, okay, it’s a harmless remark but it’s even those small remarks say things about about and male behavior which are not necessarily criminal, but it contributes to the whole picture.

You’ve said you actually embedded with the police for a week – was there anything surprising about your experience?

Dominik Moll: There was no real surprise while I was there, but because I had read Pauline Guéna’s book, it was more of a confirmation of what she had described in her book, and I still felt it was very important for me to do that, to see how they worked together in a group, how the interrogations were led. It’s not the same when you see things and when you read about it, so there were details that I wrote down that I could use later on and that was really important for the preparation of the film.

One of my favorite things about your collaborations together is how you will lean into certain genre conventions in order to subvert them or upend them. Is that tricky to navigate?

Dominik Moll: What’s interesting for us is to work a story in such a way that it presents something in a way that’s a bit different from what you’ve been used to see, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have influences of other films. For instance, we talked about the David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” because we really liked how we never see the character of Laura Palmer, aside from being a corpse, [yet] she is so present throughout the whole series and that is something that we also wanted to achieve with the victim in our film. We didn’t want her to just trigger the inquiry and then we forget her, but to be very strong throughout the film. That doesn’t mean that we steal from “Twin Peaks,” but it gives us the idea that we have to keep that in mind, so this is how we proceed and we talk a lot about all kinds of different things.

There’s a wonderfully surreal sequence where all the suspects’ faces are superimposed on Johan’s. Is it much of a decision to break that reality?

Dominik Moll: Yes, this is also one of the reasons we like Lynch or Hitchcock, is that it’s not a pure realism. Even if there are realistic things in it, it also has to do with dreams and nightmares and with unconsciousness and film is really the ideal media to explore what’s in one’s head, so in that it’s interesting because in “The Night of the 12th” at the same time we wanted it to be extremely well documented on police work — and I think we achieved that because we had a lot of crime squad police officers who told us that it was the first time they saw a film where they felt that their job was being portrayed in a correct way — we didn’t want to do a documentary, and things like what you pointed out with the faces of the suspects are important because they are strong visuals that could not be in a book or in a radio play.

We always try to find scenes like that that are a bit mental. [In] “With a Friend Like Harry,” there’s the scenes where [the main character]’s looking at the eggs in his fridge [lamenting his virility], which is a bit absurd, but which is also quite mental. We always try to introduce things like that.

It’s pretty bold upfront to announce that the case is unsolved, which I understand came in after a few drafts. How did you make that decision?

Gilles Marchand: Yes, actually, quite quickly, the question arose to share it with the audience. I wrote a series for Netflix about a very famous murder case in France that happened during the ‘80s and even if we thought that the fact that it was unresolved was really the interesting part of the story, of course there was a risk of frustrating the audience, so when we had the first draft of the screenplay and gave it to some friends to read, some of the feedbacks we had was, “Okay, it’s great, but at the end we’re quite frustrated about not having the killer.” So we thought that instead of excusing ourselves for it, we should be actually proud of it in a way and announce it from the beginning and say, “Okay, this is the deal. It’s going to be a unresolved case.” Then in the future drafts of the screenplay, we put that in and we never had that reaction again of frustration.

Do you find yourself discussing different things when cracking a story these days as you did at the start of your collaboration or does it usually start the same?

Gilles Marchand: You mean since we started almost 40 years ago? [laughs] It’s almost simplified in terms of not feeling forced. We are able to work side by side, we can’t ask ourselves the [same] questions, we go more to the essential.

Dominik Moll: And when we work together, we work in the same room, and even if one of us is typing or trying to develop a scene on his computer — and sometimes we talk a lot — then suddenly the other of us writes again. But I think that from the beginning there have never been ego problems, or no one was ever afraid to submit an idea, even if he felt it might be a bit silly, because sometimes silly ideas can lead to something else even if that particular idea is rejected, so we feel actually very free to talk. Any idea on the table might help the development of the project.

“The Night of the 12th” will open on May 19th in New York at the Quad Cinema before expanding across the country. A full list of theaters and dates is here.

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