Moka, a Film by Frédéric Mermoud
Films about obsession usually start in the before, the halcyon days of family and friends and home. A little background that helps explain the protagonist’s turn once it’s all shattered. Not in Moka, the new film by Frédéric Mermoud and adapted from the eponymous novel by Tatiana de Rosnay. We enter this one at full tilt with Diane Kramer (Emmanuelle Devos), a woman already consumed.
Our introduction to Diane is as she makes a brisk and wordless escape from the psych ward which she had presumably entered following a nervous breakdown. (A really nice set piece of visual storytelling.) In short order we then learn that her son was killed a few months ago by a hit and run driver, the event has rent her marriage, and the police lack, for what seems wont of trying, any suspects.
Frustrated that no one is treating the crime seriously enough, especially her husband (Samuel Labarthe), Diane begins her own investigation. A private detective locates four cars that match the description of the offending vehicle: a light brown sedan, coffee-colored, the “moka” of the title. Eyewitnesses describe the driver as a blond woman and that a man was riding in the passenger seat.
The most likely culprits – at least in Diane’s view – are a couple living on the French side of Lake Geneva in Evian: Marlene (Nathalie Baye), owner of an upscale cosmetics and beauty store, and her fitness-instructor boyfriend Michel (David Clavel). Their car is for sale (price reduced even), and the front end has recently had some work done.
Posing as an interested buyer to Michel, while separately engaging Marlene at her shop, Diane slowly works herself into their lives. One gets the sense that she’s both ambivalent about taking revenge, and at the same time patiently stalking them until the most opportune moment arrives. We’re not sure what Diane intends until she purchases a gun through a shady acquaintance.
Moka has been advertised as a thriller in the noir tradition. The film certainly possesses elements of noir, but where it breaks the familiar tropes is where it turns into something unique. Diane is hardly a femme fatale. She troops through the film cloaked in a shapeless green coat resembling a hunting vest. And her duel is not with an unwitting male dupe, but rather with an elegant and self-possessed Marlene.
The heart of the film is watching these two nuanced, expert actors dance around each other, Diane determined her son’s killer will meet justice, Marlene bemused and sure that something beyond a lonely woman’s need for connection lies behind Diane’s awkward friendliness.
Maybe. “I just want to be seen,” Diane says to Marlene at one point. This seems the crux of Moka. Diane’s identity, her history (as mentioned above, that “before” we never see) has been subsumed by a tragic event. Her husband downplays her grief. The police act unconcerned that a murderer still freely moves about. No friends appear at her side. More than revenge, what Diane craves is acknowledgement. For someone to say, yes, we understand your pain.
Will that be enough? Will it assuage Diane’s need for revenge? The only way to know is to see Moka.
Stefen Styrsky has appeared in “The Offing,” “Inch” and “The Tahoma Literary Review.” His website is www.stefenstyrsky.com. He is a regular contributor to Litbreak Magazine.