Ten­sion builds on a mother’s pain

A tal­ented pair pro­pels the ac­tion and emo­tion in the French thriller ‘Moka.’

Los Angeles Times - - AT THE MOVIES - KEN­NETH TU­RAN FILM CRITIC ken­neth.tu­ran @la­times.com

“Moka” is a tense psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller whose twisty plot ben­e­fits from a bravura per­for­mance by Em­manuelle Devos.

Devos’ work will not sur­prise French cin­ema fans. Though not a house­hold word over here, she is one of her coun­try’s top work­ing ac­tresses, best known for her Ce­sar-win­ning per­for­mance in Jac­ques Au­di­ard’s “Read My Lips.”

With a for­mi­da­ble pres­ence that main­lines emo­tional in­ten­sity, Devos dom­i­nates this film, ap­pear­ing in al­most every scene, but she has key sup­port from another of France’s most ac­com­plished ac­tresses: the enig­matic, four-time Ce­sar win­ner Nathalie Baye.

Devos and Baye — act­ing to­gether in a film for the first time — have dif­fer­ent but com­ple­men­tary en­ergy, and their shared scenes, as struc­tured by di­rec­tor Frédéric Mer­moud and his co-writer An­tonin Mart­inHil­bert, are the film’s strong­est and most com­pelling.

“Moka” is based on a novel by Tatiana de Ros­nay, whose ear­lier, equally co­in­ci­dence-heavy “Sarah’s Key” was filmed in 2010 with Kristin Scott Thomas as the star. From the mo­ment we meet Devos’ Diane, com­pul­sively bang­ing her head against a glass win­dow, we can see she is a woman in trou­ble and in pain, but what kind of trou­ble and pain are not im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent.

A pa­tient at a pri­vate san­i­tar­ium, Diane al­most im­me­di­ately con­trives to flee the place in Lau­sanne, Switzer­land, just across pic­turesque Lake Geneva from Evian, France, and “Moka’s” story shifts back and forth be­tween the two cities.

Diane has been hos­pi­tal­ized be­cause of the re­cent death of her teenage son Luc, who was killed by a hi­tand-run driver while bi­cy­cling home from school. That death has un­der­stand­ably un­hinged Diane, and “Moka” de­tails the ways she deals with her over­whelm­ing grief.

Both French and Swiss au­thor­i­ties are in­ves­ti­gat­ing, but that is go­ing too slowly for Diane. And though ev­ery­one seems to agree that the death was an ac­ci­dent, Diane is de­ter­mined to find who­ever it was who drove the car. What form that con­fronta­tion would take is un­clear, at least in part be­cause the quest-ob­sessed Diane likely has not thought that far.

A de­tec­tive she’s hired tells her that the car, col­ored mocha (hence the ti­tle), was likely a Mercedes that came from the French side of the bor­der and was driven by a blond woman. Armed with that in­for­ma­tion and a ter­ri­fy­ing de­ter­mi­na­tion, Diane goes to Evian to find the cul­prit. Al­most im­me­di­ately, she fixes on a mocha-col­ored Mercedes 450 SL. The car be­longs to Michel (David Clavel), who works at a lo­cal spa, but the woman he lives with is the blond Mar­lene; as the po­ten­tial driver, she’s the per­son Diane fo­cuses on at first.

As played by Baye, Mar­lene is com­plex, a self-de­scribed “self-made woman” who runs her own per­fumery in town. Clearly ca­pa­ble but lonely, a bit es­tranged from Michel as well as her root­less adult daugh­ter Elodie (Diane Rouxel), Mar­lene is touch­ingly vul­ner­a­ble to Diane’s de­vi­ous at­tempts to see if she was the driver who fled. Too ob­sessed to leave things at that, Diane also in­sin­u­ates her­self into the lives of both Michel and Elodie, all with the goal of prov­ing what she feels she al­ready knows in her bones, that Mar­lene is the guilty party.

“Moka” makes it clear that Diane’s ma­nia means her in­stincts may not be ac­cu­rate. Mer­moud, aided by an un­set­tling score by Chris­tian Gar­cia and Gre­goire Het­zel, uses the strong cast to slowly ratchet up the ten­sion. Though it de­mands pe­ri­odic sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief, as many thrillers do, this film’s abil­ity to un­set­tle us is un­de­ni­able.

Film Move­ment

TWO OF France’s top ac­tresses, Nathalie Baye, left, and Em­manuelle Devos, per­form to­gether for the first time in the thriller “Moka.”

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