Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jun 14, 2017 1:25 pm 
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Getting close to the enemy, perhaps

Moka is a handsomely photographed film shot in Switzerland (Lausanne) and France (Évian) providing free range for two premiere French actresses, Emmanuelle Devos, who plays Diane, an aggrieved mother, and Nathalie Baye, as Diane, the suspected villain of the piece, which concerns revenge for the hit-and-run killing of a teenage boy, Luc (Paulin Jaccoud, who voiced "Simon," the most complex boy in Ma vie de courgette/My Life As a Zucchini).

Those who've talked about this film note that it reads largely as more a character study than a thriller; or, if it's a thriller, as a rather "low-temperature" one (as Guy Lodge puts it at the outset of his Variety review penned at Locarno last August). It tends to meander, and since there's more ambiguity than cynicism and more ambivalence than violence, the similarity to Chabrol falls short. Another interesting reference is Patricia Highsmith. And that comparison may be more germane. Here's why:

Diane has hired a detective. Based on accounts of several witnesses, he has made a list of "moka" colored cars in the area that might have killed Luc. And since the driver was blonde, Diane eliminates all the car owners but Marlène. And the man next to the driver could have been Michel (David Clavel), her considerably younger lover. Diane stalks Marlène and Michel, separately, and gets up close to them. Very close: she and Marlène move from calling each other "vous" to "tu" and Michel makes a pass at her, after she buys the moka car from him. On the passenger ferry between Lausanne and Évian Diane runs into a young smuggler, Vincent (the seedily handsome Olivier Chantreau - good casting again). She "helps" him, and they develop a bond that's a little "thing." And while her detective won't get her a pistol, Vincent will. Diane has turned from a grieving mother into a stalker, an imposter (she lies about who she is and what she's doing to Marlène and Michel and says her name is Hèlene), and from an accomplice smuggler to the planner of murder, perhaps multiple murder.

As I describe this, I begin to like it all better than I realized. But the real reason for that is the slickness of Mermoud's filming and the nice European settings - that gives pleasure to some extent, but most pleasure is in seeing a great deal of Emmanuelle Devos, and just enoughof Nathalie Baye. (As Glenn Kenny said in his admiring NYTimes review - he made it a Critic's Pick, both actresses are in top form). I've written repeatedly about Devos and her "PIcasso face" (a phrase perhaps first used by Michael Atkinson in the Village Voice): it's lopsided, yet beautiful. Her large, jagged lips and dreamy eyes are offset by her perfect fluffy hair; all are a medium for a subtlety of emotion that is uniquely hers. Her somewhat bedraggled clothes - she wears an old khaki anorak through most of this, to underline Diane's mix of distraction and hyper-focus - never detract from her voluptuous sexiness and humanity. She is 53 but doesn't show it. Her sad eyes are easily freshened up by Marlène, at her posh salon. As Marlène, the exaggeratedly bleach-blonde suspected hit-and-run killer, Baye, who is 68, is ruthlessly slim and youthful. She dares Diane ("Hélène" to her) to guess her age, a game Diane can't, or won't play. Her smile is false but so carefully practiced it can be both false and friendly. She and the defenseless Diane/Hélène seem to connect, suave deception masking the wariness of both.

This is an odd story. It has the vulnerabilities, violent emotions, and moral shifts of Highsmith, but lacks her relentless drive. There is the tension at least that we don't know what's going to happen. The whole dynamic shifts, gradually, after Marlène's troubled daughter Élodie (Diane Rouxeld) appears. The film is adapted from a novel by Tatiana De Rosnay, and at least isn't muddled and didactic like her French-holocaust story Sarah's Key.

Moka, 89 mins. debuted at Locarno, with its French theatrical release 17 Aug. 2016; AlloCiné press rating: 3.2/18 reviews. US theatrical release begins 14 Jun. 2017 in NYC at IFC Center. Jun. 30 Shattuck Berkeley, Opera Plaza, San Francisco.


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