Frédéric Mermoud’s Moka circles a thorny concept of shifting identities and evolving empathies. The film follows Diane (Emmanuelle Devos), who’s racked with grief and rage over the unsolved hit-and-run that killed her son, Luc (Paulin Jaccoud), and escapes an institute to embark on a quest of retribution. After consulting with a detective (Jean-Philippe Écoffey), Diane suspects that Marlène (Nathalie Baye) was driving the coffee-colored sports car that hit Luc, while the latter’s boyfriend, Michel (David Clavel), was riding in the passenger’s seat. Diane has circumstantial evidence but doesn’t know what truly happened, so she gradually inserts herself into the couple’s lives, plumbing their veneer of attractive affluence and stirring up trouble.
Unfortunately, Moka is staged with a sense of observational detachment that keeps it proficiently yet un-memorably humming along in first gear. Two stories are fighting for supremacy here: a conventional revenge tale and a chilly, quasi-Chabrolian analysis of a fraught family from an outsider’s vantage point. The second story is far more interesting, but it’s routinely sidelined for fluidly yet impersonally filmed passages of Diane lying to her ex-husband, Simon (Samuel Labarthe), or meeting and seducing a younger man, Vincent (Olivier Chantreau), who provides her with a gun. Such scenes serve to tease one with a possibility of luridness that never materializes.
Moka is too pleased with offering a noncommittal outline of its banal suspense mechanism, which pivots on the question of whether Diane will kill Marlène and/or Michel when she becomes certain of their guilt. A better angle, which Mermoud examines in the film’s best passages, pertains to the parallels existing between the women, who both have money and men who barely seem to understand them. Diane and Marlène have a corresponding sense of weariness that settles into many people somewhere north of 40 who’re conditioned to judge contentment on a bell curve.
In other words, they’re kindred spirits discovering they’re simpatico with one another, which affords the actresses an opportunity to spar with behavioral specificity, investing the film with emotional energy as well as subtext. Diane’s subterfuge comes to represent the hidden agenda that we tend to see in strangers as we harden into our specific routines and prejudices.
Moka, though, abounds in stalling hugger-mugger that’s stranded tonally between modes of thriller and drama. Diane gets to know Michel on the side, pressuring him to sell her the car that may have killed her son. Diane also feigns interest in renting Marlène’s scenic cabin and meets her daughter, Elodie (Diane Rouxel), whom she follows to a club. Many of these scenes suggest other scenes that haven’t been conceived, as a distracting number of details are conveniently ignored by the filmmakers. Remarkably, Mermoud never interrogate the class of his characters, who’re able to break all manners of serious laws with the flippancy of the serially bored and pampered.
Are there any consequences of Diane’s escape from the institute? How did this detective come by his information, when the police are clueless? Does Diane have a job, and how does she have the money to cavort around in the enviably beautiful and wealthy Évian? These particulars might not matter in a more adventurously subjective horror film or thriller, but Moka makes an elaborate pretense of honoring the traditions of the observational procedural. The film uses good taste to mask a puniness of imagination.
Diane’s tedious and alienating single-mindedness doesn’t help matters, though Devos’s unsentimental portrayal of depression suggests another intriguing possibility that’s dashed by the narrative’s calm and numbing busy-ness. Diane’s remoteness invites our sympathy with the comparatively warm and mysterious Marlène, which places us in the position of liking a potential killer—an unoriginal fillip that at least gives the film a hint of tension. This gambit appears to be on the verge of bearing emotionally complex fruit until a twist ending lets us off the hook, decisively steering Moka into bland coming-of-age territory that renders the story’s emotional violence as simply another hurdle to be cleared on the path to closure.