J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Moka: Tatiana de Rosnay’s Vigilante Thriller

France’s border with Switzerland has always been porous, but Lausanne and Evian are still two distinctly different jurisdictions. When a mocha colored Mercedes from France renders a Swiss mother’s teenage son Luc comatose, she quickly grows impatient waiting the two European bureaucracies to coordinate their investigations. Diane Kramer will take justice into her own hands in Frédéric Mermoud’s Moka (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at Film Forum.

The bus driver was not a great witness, but his vague description of the car was enough for Kramer’s private investigator to generate a short list of suspects in the French region surrounding Lake Geneva. She quickly narrows it down to Marlene and her lover Michel. He does indeed own a mocha Mercedes that has had some recent repair work, which he just happened to put up for sale. Slowly, Kramer stalks her prey, presenting herself as a customer at Marlene’s make-up boutique and a potential buyer of the lethal luxury car.

Kramer is not about to turn the couple over to the police. Her notions of justice are strictly Biblical. However, she will need time to prepare. Fortuitously, she meets a young smuggler on the ferry, who will help procure a rather stylishly sleek, purse-sized automatic. As Kramer observes her targets, it becomes clear Michel is basically a dog, but she and Marlene seem to have a lot in common, but that is not likely to dissuade her.

Moka is a slow-burning, character-studying thriller, much in the tradition of late-career Claude Chabrol, but viewers might be surprised to learn it is based on a novel (not yet published in America) by Sarah’s Key author Tatiana de Rosnay. In Mermoud’s hands, it is a fine showcase for celebrated French actresses Emmanuelle Devos and Nathalie Baye. Devos just might give a career-defining performance, viscerally expressing all of Kramer’s barely contained rage. Baye nicely counter-balances her as the older Marlene, a former coquette hardened by life. It is clear she is a survivor. David Clavel just radiates sleaze as Michel, but Samuel Labarthe really brings home the emotional cost of the tragedy as Luc’s father, who also stands to lose his wife as well.

Arguably, Mermoud over-relies on Devos to keep us focused, allowing too much slack in some scenes. Still, she and Baye always bail him out. It is hugely moody, but cinematographer Irina Lubtchansky still makes the Lake Geneva setting sparkle. If you are hunting for private justice, this isn’t such a bad place to do it. Recommended for fans of French psychological dramas, Moka opens this Wednesday (6/14) in New York, at Film Forum.

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