Dominik Moll: “Message films are tricky because delivering a message is a bit presumptuous”

Fresh from his previous and well-received disappearance thriller “Seule les bêtes” (2019, a.k.a. “Only the Animals”), film director and screenwriter Dominik Moll’s latest superb screen effort “La nuit du 12” (a.k.a. “The Night of the 12th”) starts with alarming and shocking statistics in France: each year there are eight hundred murders, and twenty percent go unsolved.

The absorbing investigative crime drama “La nuit du 12” follows two hardened French detectives, played by Bastien Bouillon and Bouli Lanners. They try to solve the murder of Clara (played by Lula Cotton-Frapier, the face on the poster); she’s a young, apparently carefree, and uncomplicated woman whose body was found scorched to death after she left a party at the home of her best friend Nanie (Pauline Serieys). In this crucial scene, Mr. Moll found a respectful and deeply cinematic way to depict the sickening act that brings an investigation in motion.

At first, the investigators don’t realize that their lives will be overcome when the case gets colder as weeks and even months go by. Their methodical and professional immersion turns into a haunting obsession, even when—in a later stage—a judge, played terrifically by Anouk Grinberg, is introduced and who is convinced that society owes it to murder victims to find their killers.

“La nuit du 12” was screened at the latest Cannes Film Festival in the Première section and is out in theatres in France and other territories on July 13, 2022. The French-Belgian co-production will be released in Belgium on August 31, 2022, where it will be distributed by O’Brother Film Distribution.

Film director Dominik Moll came over to the Brussels International Film Festival (BRIFF) to promote the upcoming release of his film; the following interview was conducted before the screening of his film later that day.

Bouli Lanners and Dominik Moll at the Brussels International Film Festival | Film Talk

Mr. Moll, what was your first impression after you had read Pauline Guéna’s book “18.3 Une Année à la PJ”?

She had written it after having spent one year with the Versailles police force, and also with the people working on drugs, prostitution, etc., so she had a complete picture of the police work. They took her everywhere, to the crime scenes, in the interrogation room… She wrote the book almost in the same way as David Simon did. He was the creator of [the TV series] “The Wire” [2002-2008] who had spent a whole year with the Baltimore police and wrote a book called “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” [1991]. He also tells what he saw and what he observed. So when I came across the book, I thought it was really interesting because it doesn’t happen that often that a writer takes the time to spend a whole year observing the police force. I got to read it and it is very fascinating; it’s an inside look and nothing like police crime fiction. It’s full of details—not necessarily spectacular ones—but you see how the police officers work, how their work affects them, and what problems they have with their hierarchy or whatever. In the last two chapters of the book, she describes a particular investigation that is also in the film—the murder of a young woman who is being burned alive, and she tells how one of the police officers got obsessed with this crime, and the more so when they couldn’t find the killer. They had a lot of suspects and maybe one of them was the killer but they had no DNA, no witnesses—nothing—so they didn’t know how to continue their investigation. So I was very interested in that topic: how does it affect a police investigator, especially when he can’t bring it to a positive conclusion. That made me want to work on it, and I spoke with my co-writer Gilles Marchand; he read the book as well, he was also very fascinated by it, and he very quickly saw that there was another important thing. There’s the murder of a young woman, but in his opinion, the story and the film should also question the relationship between men and women, especially since crime squads are still exclusively male. It’s a man’s world, and they are confronted with the violence committed by other men, sometimes and often towards women. But how does that question their masculinity? That was also one of the threads that we wanted to develop in the film.

Bastien Bouillon and Bouli Lanners as Yohan and Marceau in “La nuit du 12,” trying to solve a gruesome murder case in the French Alps | O’Brother Film Distribution

Even though it’s a man’s world, you focus on your characters and your casting from a very different perspective. Take for example Anouk Grinberg, who plays the judge, or Charline Paul as the mother of the victim. They play small parts, but their contribution to the film is crucial. Charline Paul appears in three scenes, and when she doesn’t even have to say one word, her presence is still all over the screen.

I am very lucky to work with two female casting directors that I admire, and they know the actors in France and Belgium very well. We’ve known each other for quite some time, so they know what I’m looking for. The casting process took quite some time, especially for small parts, like the mother, but also all the suspects as most of them only have one scene. The suspect who hit his wife, for example, he’s despicable and horrible, but he also has something fascinating and you can feel that she was attracted to him. I want all characters, even the villains, to exist in their complexity. And if a character—any character—has only one scene, it becomes even more difficult to ensure that he or she exists, than when you have several scenes and you can see the character’s evolution. The casting directors saw a lot of actors and did many screen tests; also for the actors who play the crime squad and their colleagues, like Yohan [played by Bastien Bouillon] and Marceau [Bouli Lanners], it was important to have that group dynamic which is also very present in the book. For some, it’s not even their second family; it’s their first family. You feel that without that group, they would blow a fuse rather quickly. I spent a week with the crime squad in Grenoble and I felt very strongly about how important the group was, and how they got along and supported each other. That was something we paid a lot of attention to when we were casting. But to get back to your question, for the role of the mother, we saw quite a lot of actresses and it didn’t work, until they had the idea of casting Charline Paul. She is a comedy actress who is also very funny in real life. Another casting director probably wouldn’t have thought of her because it’s a dramatic part and she only does comedy, but she was just great. And we knew that right away. Sometimes it’s a long process to find the right actors, but when it works, it really does, and you feel it immediately.

The film makes a statement by saying that twenty percent of all crimes are unsolved. But I suppose it has a bigger message or purpose?

Message films are tricky because delivering a message is a bit presumptuous. If you deliver a message, that means you almost have the answer to the question, and I don’t. What’s important for me is to ask questions, and the most important question that I got with this film is that in this world of the police, dominated by men, how do they question their reflexes or their thoughts. And I was also interested in how the character of Yohan evolves throughout the film, and the exchanges he has with the few women characters, the first one being Nanie [Pauline Serleys], the friend of the victim, and see how he thinks. Because, at one point, he’s always asking who the victim had been sleeping with, and Nanie tells him, ‘By asking those questions, it’s almost like suggesting it was her fault.’ When a girl or a woman has been killed and you hear that she had many lovers or that she enjoyed hanging out with bad boys, people jump to the conclusion that maybe it was a little bit her fault. That’s just completely absurd, and it’s something you would never suggest for a man who has many adventures. Because for a man, it would be something positive, he’s a ladies’ man. So these kinds of reflexes and thoughts are things I wanted to focus on throughout the whole film.

Pauline Serieys as Nanie, the dead girl’s best friend, with Bastien Bouillon who portrays Captain Yohan Vivès | O’Brother Film Distribution

In your films, those provincial mountain areas seem to be important to you, don’t they? What attracted you to shoot the film in Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne in the French Alps?

I indeed have an attraction for mountains, even as a person. I like to hike in the mountains, although that’s not a reason to make films there. I always wanted to shoot a film in Grenoble because it’s a big city surrounded by mountains; it’s almost as if you were a prisoner of those mountains. In the Maurienne valley, it’s even more because it’s a very steep valley. The mountains are very beautiful, but at the same time, they have something threatening and overpowering. For me, it also symbolizes the fact that you can’t see the horizon, and the investigators in the film are also stuck; they can’t see far enough. That’s a bit theoretical as an explanation, but we had that idea in mind. What I also like about the Maurienne valley, and Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne in particular, is that it’s a city that’s full of contrast. It’s in the mountains and normally you’d say, ‘Okay, a mountain city, that’s pretty and picturesque.’ But Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne is not at all like that; it’s a very industrial city with a big aluminum factory that employs over seven hundred people. The valley is very polluted. So it’s industrial, and at the same time you have the ski resorts, you have housing projects but also very nice, small houses. It’s a mini world where you can find all kinds of different atmospheres, and that’s something I liked about that city.

Do you remember when you first realized, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life, I want to be a filmmaker’?

In the beginning, the idea of working in film was a bit new and frightening to me. I didn’t know if I had any talent for it. I think it happened when I spent two years in New York at the film department of the City College of New York. There I directed my first short films in black and white, 16mm. When I made them, I felt it was something that I enjoyed and that I wanted to continue doing—for several reasons. I liked all the steps—the writing, the preparation, the casting, the directing, the editing, and each step was very different. Each time, you had to deal with different people, and telling a story through film was something I liked very much. I knew I would not be capable of writing literature or writing a novel because I’m not at ease enough with the words. But pictures combined with words, and with music and editing, suit me much more.

Bouli Lanners and Bastien Bouillon in “La nuit du 12” | O’Brother Film Distribution

Are there any filmmakers in particular that you admired?

My main influence was—and in a way still is—Alfred Hitchcock. He was very important to me in the sense that I was triggered by what he said in the interview book “Hitchcock—Truffaut: The Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by François Truffaut” [1984]. Before that, filmmaking felt very complicated to me. I began reading Cahiers du Cinéma and I didn’t understand anything; it seemed very abstract, philosophical, and too complex. But when I read the book, I found all the answers to the questions that you have to ask yourself if you want to make a film—very practical questions, and not theoretical questions. Like why use a close-up here or a tracking shot there, and what effect will it have on the audience, or why is it better to film villains from far rather than close because they are more threatening. All those questions and answers in those interviews seemed very down-to-earth and practical. The book took away all the fear that I might have had plunging into that world of filmmaking.

And what about storyboards? Do you use them when you’re shooting your films?

Not for all scenes, and they’re not storyboards in the sense that they are very elaborate drawings. They’re just doodles that I make for some scenes. Some scenes are very important to storyboard; with others, it’s not necessary because you first rehearse with the actors and see how they will move around. But, for example, the murder of Clara is a scene that needs drawings; how to film violence is also a moral question. Some people film it like it’s fun which is very strange to me because you can’t film violence that way. But sometimes it’s important to show violence in an almost abstract way, in a tight close-up of the eyes of the victim, the lighter that’s being switched on, and then this wide shot when she runs through the frame in flames. It doesn’t hide the violence, but you’re not feeling indulgent in showing it.

Bouli Lanners as Marceau in Dominik Moll’s “La nuit du 12” | O’Brother Film Distribution

When did you know that the film was exactly what you want it to be?

Unless you’re Stanley Kubrick, I don’t think you know what the film is going to look like when you start it. For example, I don’t write the screenplay for any particular actor, I don’t know what faces the actors are going to have. A film is something alive; it changes all the time. And in the end, you can say, ‘Okay, I like it.’ But I don’t know what I exactly had in mind at the beginning; you know it will change as you move on. It will also change with the location scouting, the weather… We shot the film in October 2021. I expected to have cloudy weather, I didn’t want that, but I expected it to be rainy or foggy—that’s the Savoie in October. But during the four weeks we were there, we had nothing but blue sky and sunshine. So the film is quite sunny, which I like! Maybe if it had rained all the time, I would have liked it as well, and it certainly would have changed the film. So there are things that you’re not in control of, unless, again, you’re Stanley Kubrick. But I’m happy with the result because I’m happy with all the actors, the music—everything worked out well. But I can’t say this is exactly what I had imagined in advance.

The film is a thriller; to what extent is it in your opinion also a reflection of society?

The film is both. What we call a genre film, or police thriller, or horror film, is that there is a base that the audience is familiar with, and there a number of codes. In a police thriller, you have a murder, a police investigation, things like that. But because there are these things familiar to the audience, it allows you to include themes that go beyond that and you can tell something about our modern society, or problems between men and women, or about violence—anything. And that makes it interesting. You want to do more than just find the killer; if you’d only do that, with all due respect, then it would look like something that’s rather made for television.

Brussels International Film Festival,
June 26, 2022

“La nuit du 12” (2022, trailer)

FILMS

INTIMITÉ, a.k.a. INTIMACY (1994) DIR Dominik Moll PROD Vincent Dietschy, Bénédicte Mellac SCR Dominik Moll (short story by Jean-Paul Sartre) CAM Pierre Milon ED Thomas Bardinet MUS Franck Ash, Philippe Razol, Philippe Ours CAST Christine Brücher, Nathalie Krebs, François Chattot, Christian Izard, Hélène Roussel, Laure Werckmann

HARRY, UN AMI QUI VOUS VEUT DU BIEN, a.k.a. WITH A FRIEND LIKE HARRY… and HARRY, HE’S HERE TO HELP (2000) DIR Dominik Moll PROD Michel Saint-Jean SCR Dominik Moll, Gilles Marchand (poem by Francis Villain) CAM Matthieu Poirot-Delpech ED Yannick Kergoat MUS David Whitaker CAST Laurent Lucas, Sergi López, Mathilde Seigner, Sophie Cuillemin, Liliane Rovère, Dominique Rozan, Michel Fau, Victoire de Koster

LEMMING (2005) DIR Dominik Moll PROD Michel Saint-Jean SCR Dominik Moll, Gilles Marchand CAM Jean-Marc Fabre ED Mike Fromentin MUS David Whitaker CAST Laurent Lucas, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Charlotte Rampling, André Dussollier, Jacques Bonnaffé, Véronique Affholder, Michel Cassagne

L’AUTRE MONDE, a.k.a. BLACK HEAVEN (2010) DIR Gilles Marchand PROD Carole Scotta, Barbara Letellier, Caroline Benjo, Simon Arnal SCR Dominik Moll, Gilles Marchand CAM Céline Bozon ED Nelly Quettier MUS Emmanuel D’Orlando, Anthony Gonzalez CAST Louise Bourgoin, Grégore Leprince-Ringuet, Melvil Poupaud, Swann Arlaud, Pauline Etienne, Pierre Niney, Patrick Deschamps

LA MOINE, a.k.a. THE MONK (2011) DIR Dominik Moll PROD Michel Saint-Jean SCR Dominik Moll, Anne-Louise Trividic (novel by Matthew Lewis) CAM Patrick Blossier ED Sylvie Lager, François Gédigier MUS Alberto Iglesias CAST Vincent Cassel, Déborah François, Joséphine Japy, Sergi López, Catherine Mouchet, Jordi Dauder, Geraldine Chaplin, Roxane Duran

DES NOUVELLES DE LA PLANÈT MARS, a.k.a. NEWS FROM PLANET MARS (2016) DIR Dominick Moll PROD Michel Saint-Jean SCR Dominick Moll, Gilles Marchand CAM Jean-François Hensgens ED Margot Meynier MUS Adrian Johnston CAST François Damiens, Vincent Macaigne, Veerle Baetens, Jeanne Guittet, Tom Rivoire, Michel Aumont, Catherine Samie, Léa Drucker

DANS LA FORÊT, a.k.a. INTO THE FOREST (2016) DIR Gilles Marchand PROD Jérémie Elkaïm , Valérie Donzelli SCR Dominik Moll, Gilles Marchand CAM Jeanne Lapoirie ED Yann Dedet MUS Philippe Schoeller CAST Jérémie Elkaïm, Timothé Vom Dorp, Théo Van de Voorde, Mika Zimmerman, Mireille Perrier, Sophie Quinton, Kristell Bizien, Marite Mibalo Johansson

SEULES LES BÊTES, a.k.a. ONLY THE ANIMALS (2019) DIR Dominik Moll PROD Carole Scotta, Barbara Letellier, Caroline Benjo, Simon Arnal SCR Dominik Moll, Gilles Marchand (novel by Colin Niel) CAM Patrick Ghiringhelli ED Laurent Rouan MUS Benedikt Schiefer CAST Denis Ménochet, Laure Calamy, Damien Bonnard, Nadia Tereszkiewicz, Bastien Bouillon, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Guy Roger ‘Bibisse’ N’Drim, Jenny Bellay

LA NUIT DU 12, a.k.a. THE NIGHT OF THE 12TH (2022) DIR Dominik Moll PROD Caroline Benjo, Carole Scotta, Barbara Leteiller SCR Dominik Moll, Gilles Marchand CAM Patrick Ghiringhelli ED Laurent Rouan MUS Olivier Marguerit CAST Bastien Bouillon, Bouli Lanners, Anouk Grinberg, Pauline Serleys, Charline Paul, Matthieu Rozé, Lula Cotton-Frapier, Thibaut Evrard, Théo Cholbi, Mouna Soualem, Baptiste Perais, Nathalaël Beausivoir, Jules Porier, Benjamin Blanchy