You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Moka’

The reliably interesting Emmanuelle Devos brings complexity to this sleek, Chabrol-like story of a mother's revenge mission.

Emmanuelle Devos, Nathalie Baye, David Clavel, Diane Rouxel, Samuel Labarthe, Olivier Chantreau, Jean-Philippe Ecoffey, Marion Reymond, Paulin Jaccoud. (French dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5072406/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_2

The title of “Moka,” an elegantly lean, low-temperature thriller from Swiss writer-director Frédéric Mermoud, turns out to be less enigmatic than it sounds: It’s the color — a neutral, creamed-coffee hue of 1970s vintage — of the car responsible for the unseen hit-and-run that sets its intriguingly hesitant revenge plot in motion. That’s a fitting name for a film that paints largely in subtle, in-between shades, as grieving mother Emmanuelle Devos finds herself torn between impetuous fury and more calculated psychological warfare in tracking down those responsible for her teenage son’s death. A Chabrol-like slow burn more concerned with fine character crinkles than grand narrative revelations, this Locarno premiere is complicated considerably by Devos’ ever-astute, ambiguous presence; though it’s more sleek than sensational, “Moka’s” classical genre impulses give it a shot at international distribution.

From “I’ve Loved You So Long” to last year’s “Zurich,” grief over the loss of a child has become something of a stock character motivation in Euro arthouse cinema of late. So it’s to the credit of “Moka” — crisply adapted and relocated from a novel by Frenchwoman Tatiana de Rosnay, whose work also yielded the Kristin Scott Thomas hit “Sarah’s Key” — that, amid its other opacities, the film makes little attempt to conceal the tragedy driving Diane Kramer (Devos) into shadowy moral territory.

Following a terrifically tight, wordless opening sequence that sees Diane escaping from a Lausanne sanitorium — to which she has evidently been committed following a nervous breakdown of sorts — viewers should swiftly piece together the essentials. Her violin-prodigy son Luc (Paulin Jaccoud, glimpsed in taciturn visions and flashbacks) was recently struck dead by the driver of a Mercedes coupe still unidentified by police. Unconvinced (rightly, it turns out) that they’ve been thorough in their investigations, and with little support from her more accepting, increasingly estranged husband Simon (Samuel Labarthe), she enlists a private eye to do some digging of his own.

It doesn’t take him long to turn up a few leads — the most compelling of which takes Diane across Lake Geneva to the famed spa town of Évian. There, she becomes convinced she’s found the offending vehicle: A cherished classic belonging to middle-aged beautician Marlene (a bleach-blonde Nathalie Baye) and her buff fitness-instructor boyfriend Michel (David Clavel). If they love the car so much, why is it suddenly up for sale? And why has the paintwork been newly touched up on the bonnet? Approaching Michel in the guise of a prospective buyer, Diane’s suspicions soon turn to seething, resentful certainty.

It would seem, then, that the whodunnit portion of proceedings is over before it’s even begun — yet strangely, it’s once the mystery is more or less solved that “Moka” begins to get really interesting. With her prey effectively caught, Diane is nervously ambivalent over what to actually do with it. Playing for time while also fueling a morbid fascination with the uninterrupted lives of her son’s accidental killers, she strikes up separate, sustained acquaintances with Michel and Marlene, who respond to her neighborly stalking with wary bemusement.

As Diane maintains a fragile double life between Lausanne and Évian — its hovering halves separated by the aptly mist-blanketed lake — the film largely forgoes its more Hitchcockian properties for febrile, intuitive character study, beautifully served by Devos’ witty, coolly disciplined performance. That we’re never quite sure if the tentative bond Diane forms with Marlene is entirely performed on the former’s part — or if she has indeed reluctantly discovered common ground with her affable sworn enemy — is among the richest complexities of the actress’s work, while Baye (on far slyer form here than in Xavier Dolan’s recent shriekfest “It’s Only the End of the World”) responds in kind with a performance of equivalent masking and layered politesse.

Watching these two fine actresses circle each other in a kind of watchful alligator’s tango, each waiting for the other to blink first, is the chief pleasure on offer in “Moka”: When Diane sunnily tells her unwitting target that she “still looks great for [her] age,” the sharp release of passive aggression is almost gasp-inducing. Not every subplot here is handled with quite such scalpel-wielding finesse, though a public burst of frustration against Simon’s placating behavior offers a startling glimpse of the protagonist’s otherwise deftly managed personae in involuntary collision. Diane’s shady affiliation with scuzzy-sexy drug dealer Vincent (Olivier Chantreau), meanwhile, arms the plot with its obligatory loaded weapon, but also contributes the film’s more hackneyed genre notes: In a film otherwise adept at splintering serene surfaces, we hardly need his character to tell us, “Looks can be deceiving.”

Mostly content for his actors to calibrate the tension between them, Mermoud’s directorial intrusion is confidently minimal. The tasteful classical refrains of the score gain in cruel resonance as the backstory is uncovered, while the sober tones and cashmere finish of Irina Lubtchansky’s lensing announce a sense of calm begging to be ruptured. But it’s the finer particularities of the sound design — beginning with the arresting opening shot, as Diane taps her head against a plate-glass window to an escalating tempo and volume — that provide our most immediate conduit into the protagonist’s divided headspace.

Film Review: 'Moka'

Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande), Aug. 3, 2016. Running time: 90 MIN.

Production: (France-Switzerland) A Diligence Films, Bande à Part Films, Tabo Tabo Films, Sampek Prods. production, in co-production with Radio Télévision Suisse, in association with Sofitvciné, Cofimage 2. (International sales: Pyramide International, Paris.) Producers: Damien Couvreur, Julien Rouch, Jean-Stéphane Bron, Tonie Marshall. Executive producer: Adrian Blaser.

Crew: Director: Frédéric Mermoud. Writers: Mermoud, Antonin Martin-Hilbert, adapted from the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay. Camera (color): Irina Lubtchansky. Editor, Sarah Anderson.

With: Emmanuelle Devos, Nathalie Baye, David Clavel, Diane Rouxel, Samuel Labarthe, Olivier Chantreau, Jean-Philippe Ecoffey, Marion Reymond, Paulin Jaccoud. (French dialogue)

More Film

  • Ari Emanuel Endeavor

    Endeavor IPO Filing Offers Details of Company's Financials, Leadership Pay Packages

    Endeavor’s IPO filing Thursday offers a hard look at the company’s financial performance during the past three years during a period of rapid growth for the company that’s home to UFC, WME, Professional Bull Riders and a clutch of other assets. Endeavor is generating solid free cash flow from operations and healthy adjusted earnings for [...]

  • Inside amfAR's Cannes Gala

    Inside amfAR's Cannes Gala: Mariah Carey, Kendall Jenner and Tiffany Trump

    Kendall Jenner caused a commotion when she arrived. Tiffany Trump went unrecognized until a member of the press pointed her out as she made her way down the carpet. And Mariah Carey flew in to perform a couple of songs. Welcome to this year’s AmfAR Gala Cannes, the AIDS organization’s annual — and largest — [...]

  • 'Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo' Review: Abdellatif

    Cannes Film Review: 'Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo'

    A simple but somehow atypical shot opens Abdellatif Kechiche’s new film: a serene closeup of a young woman’s face, as seen through the camera lens of Amir, a budding photographer still finding his perspective. Her expression is ambiguously tranquil, her long hair lightly rustled by a humid breeze, all softly lit by a sinking afternoon [...]

  • Crown Vic

    Thomas Jane's Police Thriller 'Crown Vic' Sells to Screen Media (EXCLUSIVE)

    Screen Media has bought North American rights to writer-director Joel Souza’s police crime-thriller “Crown Vic,” starring Thomas Jane and Luke Kleintank. The distributor closed terms during the Cannes Film Festival amid a competitive bidding situation between seven other suitors. Screen Media plans to release the pic this fall. “Crown Vic” premiered in April at the [...]

  • Colleen Bell

    Colleen Bell Replaces Amy Lemisch as California Film Commission Director

    Veteran entertainment executive and ambassador Colleen Bell will replace Amy Lemisch as director of the California Film Commission. Bell, who was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday, has worked as a consultant since 2017. She was the U.S. ambassador to Hungary from 2014 to 2017. She held several positions at Bell-Phillip Television Productions, including [...]

  • Jon Feltheimer

    Lionsgate Posts Loss, Underperforms Wall Street Expectations

    Lionsgate has posted a quarterly loss and its revenues and operating income have come in under Wall Street projections, despite growth from its premium cable channel, Starz. The studio reported a net loss of $24 million, or 11 cents a share, with adjusted operating income of $103 million for its fourth fiscal quarter ended March [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content