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Full Of Tension And Grief, 'Moka' Is An Unsettling Film

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Moka opens with a woman of about 40 (Emmanuelle Devos) banging her head against a window that faces out onto Lake Geneva from her home in the Swiss city of Lausanne. It’s painful to see, but she doesn’t bang hard enough to damage herself; it’s her vain attempt to vent frustration. Diane has lost something, and soon you figure out it’s her teenaged son, killed by a hit-and-run driver as he came out of a music lesson.

Now months after the boy’s death, Diane has grown obsessive. She and her husband have separated. He counsels patience and rationality while the police slowly investigate, but Diane is determined to track down the killer herself. A private investigator thinks the car was a Mercedes or a BMW and that the driver was blonde. Diane tracks down a middle-aged blonde. (Natalie Baye) who runs a beauty parlor in the French town of Evian, just across the lake from Lausanne. The woman, Marlène, has a boyfriend who’s a trainer at a rec center. Diane cozies up to Marlène by pretending to be a customer; she hunts the man by pretending to want to buy the vintage Mercedes. If it sounds like stalking, it is, and even though Diane has real grief on her side, she still gives you the creeps.

Moka gets its title from the handsome coffee-colored Mercedes. It’s also a pretty film. The lake is lovely, especially when director Frédéric Mermoud films it with the Alps in the background. The people are well-heeled and attractive. It’s a spacious movie. You get to appreciate the expanse of the lake; homes have room around them. The city sequences feel open and accommodating, so you notice how the obsessive Diane encloses herself in the narrow interior of her car. She parks on the street and watches people through the glass windows of the car as well as the glass windows of their homes. Diane has isolated herself into her grief and her desire for vengeance, and given herself no room to move.

Moka may be a Swiss film, but it has that characteristic picture of self-destructive obsession that’s really common in French pictures. But maybe because it’s Swiss not French, Moka shows a restraint the French films don’t have. Diane doesn’t go quite haywire. Just as she doesn’t really damage herself with head-banging, she holds back just a bit. She doesn’t go screaming into the beauty parlor, knocking things off the shelves or breaking the windows. She nervously asks for help with makeup. In the same way, she doesn’t take a crowbar to the vintage Mercedes.

Moka tends to be unsettling more than it’s outrageous. Diane’s just slightly off socially. She shows up at the beauty parlor, slow and hesitant in her speech. She’s awkward and inappropriate, to use an uptight word for a tightly-wound character. Marlène knows Diane is up to something, but can’t figure out what. So the worry isn’t that Diane will blow the place up; instead you get this gnawing feeling that someone is going slowly off the rails.

Moka doesn’t show a world of explosions, just constant tension. Diane searches for responsibility, for someone to blame. But responsibility is elusive and Moka operates in a land of partiality, where fault and guilt may just be part of overall ambiguity. Diane wants things solved, ordered and fixed, but sometimes there is no fix.

And a quick note about another film. Lost in Paris is the fourth movie by the Belgian-Australian couple Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon, who write, direct and star in their own pictures. Together they’re daft and elegant and a hilarious marvel to watch. They’ve mastered the suggestive, articulate movements of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and brought Chaplin’s and Keaton’s incredulity up to date. Lost in Paris takes place in Paris; the two are lost. But the process of getting found is nothing like what you might imagine. It’s a delightful, jaw-dropping surprise.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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