One of the highlights of the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival is Moka, a subtly disquieting drama that sees two of France’s most revered actresses go tête-à-tête with highly satisfying results.
The always fascinating Emmanuelle Devos plays Diane, a resident of Lausanne, Switzerland. In the opening scene she’s quietly banging her head against a window pane before slipping out of what seems to be some kind of sanatorium.
It transpires that she lost her teenage son in a hit and run accident some months earlier. She and her husband Simon (Samuel Labarthe) have since separated and Diane, frustrated by the lack of any progress by the police to track down the driver, has hired a private detective.
Given a short list of likely suspects, she soon hones in on the couple she believes are responsible for her son’s death. So begins the process of gaining the proof she needs before going to the police, although we’re never reassured that going to the police is part of her plan.
The suspects in question are Marlene (Nathalie Baye) who was allegedly driving the car, and Michel (David Clavel), her younger partner, who is now selling it. Diane goes to the picturesque town of Evian where the couple live and insinuates herself on both of them, although neither is aware that the other has even met Diane.
Diane gets especially close to Marlene. She introduces herself as Helene and says she’s a writer whose come to Evian to finish writing a book. Here her game plan seems to get muddied as her fascination for the couple grows. We’re never really sure how she plans on getting to the truth or what she’ll do once she has. All we know is that husband Simon is concerned for her state of mind.
The premise may sound like your standard revenge potboiler, but anyone familiar with writer/director Frederic Mermoud’s work on the French TV series The Returned will know he’s more concerned with the psychology of his characters than the mechanics of the plot. In this sense, he succeeds in developing Diane, especially, into a fully rounded, complex personality.
It helps having an actor of Devos’ range and nuance in the lead role. She has an uncanny ability to transfix us with an unblinking countenance that comes across as dangerously ambiguous. She has some wonderful scenes with Baye, who last year featured in Les Volante, a film that bears a resemblance to this one, where she played the role that Devos plays here.
Given the locations, its no surprise that Moka is ravishing to the eye. Lake Geneva, which separates the two towns where the action takes place, acts as a visual metaphor – it’s cool surface belying a dark undertow. And the score, by Christian Garcia and Gregoire Hetzel, is equally elegant and seductive, with a bit of Beethoven and Rieding justifiably included given the deceased son’s musical background.
Moka, the title refers to the colour of the car at the centre of the story, is an engrossing tale, exceedingly well acted, and with a highly rewarding denouement.
Moka is currently screening at the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival
Richard Leathem @dickiegee
This review was first published in January when Moka featured in the online My French Film Festival