This is entertaining, setting-specific thriller storytelling at its finest and an exemplar of artful genre film-making.
Based on a novel by Tatiana De Rosnay, Moka is a beautifully-photographed genre film that delights in the grit and grime of thriller conventions to build tension and give the viewer a sharp sense of place. It revels in static landscape shots, soapy facial expressions from the main characters and loud European muscle cars to bring its fairly standard plot to life. The film is ultimately a morality play about motherhood, but the way it gets to its well-worn conclusions makes it worthwhile.
Six months after Diane (Emmanuelle Devos) loses her son in a hit-and-run incident, she has compiled eyewitness testimony and a sweeping search of car registrations to narrow down the list of suspects. She knows the car was a powerful ‘70s model, light-brown or mocha in color, and was driven by a blonde. Tracking down similar vehicles in her immediate area—she lives in the singularly gorgeous city of Lausanne, Switzerland, but the film is set mostly in neighboring Evian, France—she comes across Marléne (Nathalie Baye), a blonde with a mocha Mercedes.
Introducing herself as Hélène, Diane ingratiates herself with the driver, who runs a beauty shop, and her husband Michel (David Clavel), who’s trying to sell the car. With access to the instrument used to kill her son, Diane poses as a potential buyer. Director Frédéric Mermoud and editor Sarah Anderson keep a fast pace so that Diane seems like a frenetic ball of energy hyper-focused on ensuring that Marléne was indeed driving the car on that fateful evening. Marléne believes she has made a friend and Michel thinks he has found a lover, but neither anticipate Diane’s real intentions.
The pleasures of a thriller often come from its setting, and the frontier towns of Lausanne and Evian are as important to the script as its characters. The towns straddle a strange international boundary between the European Union and ever-neutral Switzerland. Both are full of tourists and the sort of infrastructure that caters to such a crowd. But the film does a superb job of mining this for intrigue: lake-crossing ferries, Swiss neutrality and dozens of luxury hotels can also buoy illicit trafficking of guns and drugs. Despite majestic views of famous Alpine peaks, there is a seedy underbelly to these locations, and the cinematography by Irina Lubtchansky expertly treads the line between sunny landscapes and noir-ish transgression. There is real atmosphere in this film and a frontier ethos that one would not expect along this particular frontier.
Even with its short run-time, Moka’s final act is saturated with labyrinthine twists and revelations about each of the characters. The way the plot is eventually resolved is true to the pacing and spirit of the film. There is nothing world-shattering in the moral of the story, nor is there anything particularly new about it. But that misses the point: this is entertaining, setting-specific thriller storytelling at its finest and an exemplar of artful genre film-making.