MOKA, drama, not rated, in French with sub­ti­tles, The Screen, 3 chiles

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

Just across Lake Geneva from Lau­sanne, Switzer­land, is the French city of Évian, a pic­turesque place that is home to the water-bot­tling em­pire. The two cities, and the wa­ter­way that con­nects them, are the set­ting for the lat­est film from direc­tor Frédéric Mer­moud (Ac­com­plices), based on a novel by Tatiana de Ros­nay.

Diane (Em­manuelle Devos) has lost a child to a hit-and-run ac­ci­dent in Lau­sanne. A pri­vate de­tec­tive ( Jean-Philippe Écof­fey) dis­cov­ers that eye­wit­ness ac­counts of the car in­volved sug­gest it was an older BMW or Mercedes of a par­tic­u­lar beige hue (thus the film’s ti­tle). A bit of foot­work leads Diane to such a car, and to its own­ers — Évian res­i­dents whom she be­lieves to be the cul­prits: salon owner Mar­lène (Nathalie Baye) and her hus­band, Michel (David Clavel).

Diane in­sin­u­ates her­self into their lives, show­ing up for makeovers at Mar­lène’s salon and ex­press­ing in­ter­est in buy­ing a car from Michel. The car, a beige Mercedes coupe, has just been put up for sale, and it has had a bit of work done re­cently on the front end. (Hmm.) Ini­tially it seems pos­si­ble that Diane is merely gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion, but as she digs deeper into the cou­ple’s lives, re­venge ap­pears to be the more likely mo­tive. On the ferry across the lake, she meets a young man named Vin­cent (Olivier Chantreau), who en­lists her in a mi­nor de­cep­tion, and the two strike up a friend­ship born of a mu­tual need for dis­creet as­sis­tance in their per­sonal schemes.

As the sum­mer movie sea­son wears on, full of comic-book flicks, sci-fi epics, and their se­quels, it’s re­fresh­ing to see some­thing that op­er­ates on a hu­man scale. Though the scenery is lovely and the cast is tal­ented, lit­tle about Moka is es­pe­cially cin­e­matic — it feels like an en­gross­ing movie you might dis­cover while surf­ing chan­nels on a rainy af­ter­noon. The care­fully shaded char­ac­ters and the mys­tery of the cen­tral plot make the film seem like some­thing out of the 1940s or ’50s. In fact, the neb­u­lous na­ture of Diane’s plans for Mar­lène and Michel gives Moka a noirish feel, which deep­ens when she develops a re­la­tion­ship with Mar­lène’s daugh­ter, Élodie (Diane Rouxel).

What drives the film is the in­ter­play be­tween Baye and Devos. Baye is ex­cel­lent as the twinkly-eyed ob­ject of Diane’s sus­pi­cion, who picks up more from her new “friend” than Diane re­al­izes. And as Diane delves deeper into the lives of the strangers she be­lieves killed her son, we glimpse the pas­sion that Devos brought to 2001’s Read My Lips. She per­fectly por­trays a woman whose ob­ses­sion threat­ens to snow­ball out of con­trol. — Jeff Acker

Here in my car: Nathalie Baye

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