A polite thriller about bad behavior among the French bourgeoisie, Moka (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, June 30) is the sort of film Claude Chabrol made by the bucket load throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. It’s also (at least if IMDb is to be believed!) a distaff remake in all but name of La Volante (The Assistant), a film released only a year ago.
Not having seen La Volante, I’m in no position to question writer-director Frédéric Mermoud’s artistic choices or accuse him of plagiarism. Nonetheless, it’s something to consider – along with your feelings about the collected works of Chabrol – before you pony up a sawbuck for the privilege of scoping out Moka.
Novelist Diane (Emmanuelle Devos) lives in bucolic Lugrin, a picturesque French Alps town that sits opposite Lausanne on the shores of Lake Lamin. She’s in mourning for her teenage son, Luc, recently killed by a hit-and-run driver on the road from Lugrin to nearby Évian-les-Bains.
Determined to find the perps and — if not bring them to justice — at least give them a piece of her mind, Diane is willing to go the extra distance to close the case. With the help of a private detective, eyewitnesses have been interviewed, narrowing the suspects down to the owners of four locally driven brown sedans.
By process of elimination, Diane focuses her investigation on Marlène (Nathalie Baye) and Michel (David Clavel), an Evian couple who not only drive a brown Mercedes four-door but also match a witness’s physical description of the killers. Methodically insinuating herself into their lives, Diane becomes convinced that they’re responsible for Luc’s death; a ferryboat encounter with drug dealer Vincent (Olivier Chantreau) leads to the acquisition of a handgun and the suggestion that matters might get a little out of hand.
Her mouth tight-jawed, her face etched with grim but determined sadness as she stealthily closes in on her prey, Devos is particularly fine as the tortured wordsmith. Baye, on the other hand, spends most of the film positively beaming, suggesting total innocence or psychopathic indifference.
French cinema has a long and well-deserved reputation for providing women with strong lead roles, and Moka is no exception. Age, it seems, is also no impediment: Devos is in her 50s and Baye almost 70, yet they both work with some regularity. American studios should, but probably won’t, take note.
And the Alps? Well, you probably won’t be surprised to learn they look amazing, with the picture-postcard perfection of both Lugrin and Évian underscoring the flaws of the film’s less than perfect human characters. If you’re tired of French films that never leave Paris or the maritime regions, Moka offers blessed relief.
The film concludes on a relatively satisfying note, but leaves one question unanswered: who, or what, is ‘Moka’? Perhaps I overlooked a narrative revelation or visual clue, but I honestly have no idea what the title means. If a Berkeleyside reader can enlighten me, please do so via the comments section!