‘The Returned’s’ Frederic Mermoud on ‘Moka,’ Death and Strong Female Characters

Swiss director’s “Moka,” his second feature, screens at Locarno’s Piazza Grande

Courtesy of Pyramide Films

Swiss filmmaker Frédéric Mermoud’s second feature, “Moka” – a complex psychological thriller starring Emmanuelle Devos and Nathalie Baye, primarily lensed in Switzerland – will screen at the Locarno’s Festival’s Piazza Grande. its prime location for more accessible crowd-pleasers. Mermoud’s debut “Complices” (Accomplices) played at Locarno, in 2009. He also directed episodes 5-8 of the first season of the hit French supernatural TV series, “Les Revenants” (The Returned), a game-changing series for France which was broadcast on the Sundance Channela and became the first fully-subtitled series broadcast on the U.K.’s Channel 4 in more than 20 years..

Mermoud, who lives between Paris and Lausanne, talks to Variety about his latest feature.

What were the main challenges in adapting the novel by Tatiana De Rosnay? 

After working with the actress Emmanuelle Devos on “Accomplices,” I wanted to work with her again, in a project in which she would appear throughout the film. After I read Tatiana’s novel, it seemed to be the perfect project and Diligence Films acquired the rights. Tatiana gave me complete freedom to develop the script as I wished. The initial versions of the script were closer to the dramatic structure of the novel, which was in the form of a chronicle with many flashbacks. But I ended up by focusing on the final part of the novel. The script’s narrative structure is fairly different from the novel. Tatiana saw the film one month ago and said that she’s very happy with it, that it remains faithful to the novel’s spirit and characters.

How did working on a major French TV series (“Les Revenants”) influence the way you approach making feature films?

I work in a different way for cinema and TV. I think film is more elliptical. It transports us to a dreamlike state. It has a kind of hypnotic effect on the spectator. A TV series is based on a more addictive process, whereby we primarily want to know what will happen next. Both areas have very noble ambitions, but they work with time in a different way.

There are certain recurrent themes in your work, in particular the threshold that exists between life and death, and using the present to retrieve things or people that have been lost in the past. 

It’s true that I’m interested in the presence of a phantom, or of death, because this obliges characters to take action. They can’t hide. They have to find a new reality and redefine themselves and learn how to live with the phantom. Death can act as a trigger that each person interprets in a different way. In “Moka,” the main character has to redefine herself and also come to terms with the loss of her son. At the end of the film we feel that she lets him go at various levels, granting him his own existence, separate from her.

You seem to be particularly interested in powerful, complex female characters, tortured by their past. What-s your fascination?

There’s something mysterious and intriguing about strong female characters. That is why I like the actress Emmanuelle Devos, as well as actresses such as Julianne Moore or Faye Dunaway. On the one hand, Emmanuelle is very articulate but also very mysterious. At the beginning of the film, she has a fairly conventional bourgeois life, but the loss of her son sets her on a quest, obliging her to become the driving force in her own life. She needs to overcome her grief and at first seems to be driven by vengeance but during the film she discovers and learns more about herself and comes to terms with her own complex identity.

How would you classify “Moka” in terms of film genre?

I like working on the frontier between different genres – that dance between one genre and another. For example, “Accomplices” was a mixture of a police procedural and a love story. “Moka” combines a thriller with intimate character portrait. I’m a great admirer of Hitchcock who shows us very strong, very serious female characters who at the same time are very mysterious. At the beginning, we don’t know who the woman is, and whether she’s a bit crazy. In a Hitchcock film, we’re not sure whether we’re dreaming or being paranoid.

The landscape plays an important part in your film

The geography of “Moka” is very important. Lake Geneva separates the two main locations – the towns of Lausanne in Switzerland and Evian in France. Water is almost omnipresent in the film – the lake, the sound of water fountains, the thermal spa, the rain. Water is paradoxical. It can generate both life and death. It is sensual and seems to be impregnated with memories. The surface of the lake seems very beautiful and soft, but something more violent is hidden beneath. This is also a bit like the main female characters. When we see the Alps there’s something similar. The mountains seem to be domesticated, beautifully formed, a bit like in a Japanese painting, but there’s also something wild and untamed about them. The main characters also have these two sides. They can suddenly change violently, just like the weather can also change very quickly around the lake. I’ve always been interested by the geography of a film. But this was the first time that I filmed the landscape in a more metaphorical manner. This was perhaps influenced by working on “Les Revenants” which also forges an organic link with the landscape.

What will your next project be?

I’m working on a TV movie, called “The Last Voyage,” based on a fait divers that occurred in Switzerland in 1994, involving the collective suicide of 74 people from a neo-Templar sect – the Ordre du Temple Solaire. I became interested in this complex subject above all in order to understand what makes people abandon their individuality and embark on a mission that will lead to their own destruction.