'Moka': Locarno Review

Festival del film Locarno
A classy and classical psychological thriller.

Emmanuelle Devos and Nathalie Baye headline this Patricia Highsmith-like thriller about a mother who lost her son in a car accident and wants to take revenge on the stranger that caused it.

A Swiss mother who’s lost her son in a car accident decides to track down the Frenchwoman responsible for his death in Moka, a lean but skillful adaptation of the eponymous novel by Anglo-French writer Tatiana de Rosnay. Emmanuelle Devos stars as the mourning mother-on-a-mission, while co-star Nathalie Baye plays the owner of the car — whose coffee-like color gives the film its title — that was involved in the hit-and-run accident. This is the kind of psychological thriller that could’ve been written by Patricia Highsmith several decades ago as it contrasts obsession and revenge with a slow uncovering of the psyche of the two female leads. This solidly assembled but never genre-busting Locarno Film Festival Piazza Grande title should appeal to smart (and probably more female-leaning) art house audiences both at home and abroad.

Though the original novel went back and forth between Paris and the Atlantic resort town of Biarritz (over 400 miles apart), Swiss director Frederic Mermoud has successfully transplanted the story to Lausanne, in Switzerland, and the French provincial town (and bottled water capital) Evian, a 35-minute ferry ride away across the picturesque but potentially treacherous Lake Geneva. The setting of the two cities, separated by a border across an almost Stygian expanse of water, enhances both the film’s sense of place and unease. 

On the Swiss side, Diane (Devos) is still distressed over a month after the death of her teenage son, Luc (Paulin Jaccoud, occasionally seen as a spectral presence). Frustrated with everyone’s need to look after her well-being while the police seem to do nothing to find the culprits, she escapes from a hospital and decides to investigate the case with the help of a fatherly private detective (Jean-Philippe Ecoffey) who gives her a list of cars from the area that correspond to what an eyewitness remembers seeing.

While staking out the addresses on her list one by one, it’s not immediately clear what Diane plans to do once she finds the driver that killed Luc. When she becomes convinced the mocha-colored 1972 Mercedes of Marlene (Baye) and her 13-year-younger partner, Michel (David Clavel), is the vehicle she was looking for, she starts appearing in the life of both of them, pretending to be a customer of Marlene’s beauty shop and as a potential buyer of the vintage car in question, which Michel is selling. Unbeknownst to their partner, the stranger then proceeds to strike up an acquaintanceship of sorts with both Marlene and Michel.

The two storylines are initially developed separately and are then skillfully brought together in a way that’s reminiscent of the pleasingly complex structure of Mermoud’s first feature, Accomplices (which also starred Devos). Along the way, suspense seeps into the proceedings as Diane asks a scraggily handsome drug trafficker, Vincent (Olivier Chantreau), who operates across the lake, to procure her a weapon after her detective refuses.

Her duplicitous relationships with Marlene and Michel are contrasted with the equally ambiguous relationships Diane has with Vincent and with her other half, Simon (Samuel Labarthe, famous locally as George Clooney’s French voice), who thinks she should come back home to Lausanne instead of spending all that time in Evian, even though their relationship has clearly hit the skids. Their scenes together in the corridor of the hotel where Diane is staying and on the terrace of a lakeside restaurant are among the film's strongest, simultaneously advancing the plot while constantly etching in character details.

Indeed, a woman in mourning can be more dangerous and more persistent than a wounded animal, and Mermoud and Devos beautifully uncover the dark side of Diane’s character, suggesting that a strong maternal instinct might be capable of great love for her little one but that when that baby gets hurt, that love can turn into the kind of extreme hatred that has seemingly turned Diane into such a coldly calculating character hellbent on revenge. Opposite her, Baye’s Marlene is a sunny, self-made woman with her own strengths and insecurities who, in an alternate universe, might have become Diane’s actual (rather than pretend) friend. Without giving too much away (light spoiler ahead), what’s so breathtaking about their moment of truth on a mountaintop is the way in which Mermoud falls back on these women’s shared banality to make a point.

There are minor issues in the film’s closing reel, which feels rushed because a sudden cascade of twists makes it hard for the psychological ramifications of each revelation to sink in. The young actresses playing Marlene’s daughter (Diane Rouxel) and Luc’s girlfriend (Marion Reymond) are also a tad bland compared to the acting heavyweights opposite them, even though one of the film’s more unexpected pleasures is to see how Diane’s relationship with these young women suggests something about the loving mother she might have been to Luc (there are no flashbacks except for some video footage of Luc and his girlfriend on his smartphone).

Rather incredibly, this is the first time veterans Baye and Devos have ever shared the screen together, and they are both impressive. The chestnut-haired and open-faced Devos beautifully suggests the struggle between the broken and more lunar side of her maternal character with her everyday self, while Baye’s platinum blond and perfectly coiffed overachiever looks the part of a provincial woman whose success in business only partially compensates for other areas in her life.

At various times reminiscent of the works of Chabrol, Hitchcock and Highsmith, the film doesn’t reinvent the genre but knows how to use its codes to its advantage. The sound of the zipper on Diane’s handbag, for example, becomes extremely ominous in Mermoud’s capable hands, while two distinct musical themes, written by Christian Garcia and Gregoire Hetzel, respectively, further enhance the mood and help establish the film’s bona fides as a classy and classical psychological thriller.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)
Production companies: Diligence Films, Bande A Part Films, Tabo Tabo Films, Sampek Productions
: Emmanuelle Devos, Nathalie Baye, David Clavel, Diane Rouxel, Samuel Labarthe, Olivier Chantreau, Jean-Philippe Ecoffey, Marion Reymond, Paulin Jaccoud
Director: Frederic Mermoud
Screenplay: Frederic Mermoud, Antonin Martin-Hilbert, based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay
Producers: Damien Couvreur, Julien Rouch, Jean-Stephane Bron, Tonie Marshall
Director of photography: Irina Lubtchansky
Production designer: Ivan Niclass
Costume designer: Francoise Nicolet
Editor: Sarah Anderson
Music: Christian Garcia, Gregoire Hetzel
Casting: Brigitte Moidon
Sales: Pyramide International

Not rated, 90 minutes