“Moka” is a dou­ble char­ac­ter study

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Mark Jenins

=★★¼5 Mys­tery. Un­rated. In French with sub­ti­tles. 89 min­utes.

Ac­cord­ing to a pri­vate de­tec­tive, there are only four large, mocha-col­ored au­to­mo­biles in all of Evian, a town on the French side of Lake Geneva. The pro­tag­o­nist of “Moka” — and the woman who paid for that in­for­ma­tion — lives across the wa­ter in Switzer­land. She’s cer­tain that one of those four cars struck and killed her child.

Adapted from a 2007 novel by Ta­tiana de Ros­nay (whose grim “Sarah’s Key” was made into a movie in 2010), “Moka” is a stark, moody mys­tery that doesn’t ac­tu­ally con­tain much mys­tery. In­stead, it ex­cels as a char­ac­ter study and a dy­namic face-off be­tween two for­mi­da­ble ac­tresses: Em­manuelle Devos and Nathalie Baye.

Devos plays Diane, whose teenage son Luc (Paulin Jac­coud) has died in a hit-and-run. Baye is Mar­lène, the woman who may or may not have been at the wheel.

Diane’s grief has left her es­tranged from her hus­band, Si­mon (Sa­muel Labarthe), who frus­trates her by trust­ing in the po­lice to in­ves­ti­gate Luc’s death. Diane, for her part, moves across the lake, ac­com­pa­nied only by a cell­phone con­tain­ing dig­i­tal re­minders of Luc and the girl­friend he never men­tioned, Adrienne (Mar­ion Rey­mond). On the ferry over, Diane meets a young smug­gler (Olivier Chantreau). His spe­cialty seems to be dope, but he just might also be able to get Diane a gun.

Quickly elim­i­nat­ing the other sus­pects, Diane be­comes con­vinced of Mar­lène’s guilt. But rather than con­front her, Diane be­gins by try­ing to in­sin­u­ate her­self into Mar­lène’s life. As me­thod­i­cal as she is hys­ter­i­cal, Diane even at­tempts to buy the tan-col­ored Mercedes she be­lieves struck Luc, which has been put up for sale by the 60-some­thing Mar­lène’s younger boyfriend, Michel (David Clavel).

Mar­lène, who runs a beauty sa­lon where Diane soon be­comes a reg­u­lar, us­ing an as­sumed name, is in­trigued by the new­comer’s in­ter­est in her, but also sus­pi­cious. The two might have bonded over ma­ter­nal pres­sures, since Mar­lène is hav­ing trou­ble with her rest­less ado­les­cent daugh­ter Elodie (Diane Rouxel). But Diane tells Mar­lène she’s not a mother.

Elodie is clearly out of con­trol. In her qui­eter way, so is Diane. Nei­ther one of them can be fixed by Mar­lène or Michel, although both are menders of fe­male psy­ches: Mar­lène with creams and lo­tions, Michel with the aquatic ex­er­cise classes he leads at a lo­cal spa.

Swiss di­rec­tor Frédéric Mer­moud is no Hitch­cock, yet he presents this story as if it’s a real puz­zler, even though there are no MacGuffins to throw off am­a­teur sleuths. At­ten­tive view­ers will crack the case long be­fore Diane does.

Dis­cov­er­ing who did what to whom isn’t the point any­way. Luc and Adrienne stud­ied mu­sic to­gether, and the Beethoven-heavy “Moka” ends with an af­fect­ing mu­si­cal epiphany — both for Diane and one other per­son. It’s not the hit-an­drun driver, but it’s some­one Diane should have sought from the first.

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