As a lifelong thriller fan, the occasion of anything deemed “Chabrol-like” being released in the United States is a cause for celebration. “Chabrol-like” is shorthand for a stylish, slow burn mystery, often set in a bourgeois milieu, with a simmering murder at the middle. It is inevitably surrounded by ambiguous moral and emotional decisions, the sorts of nods and nudges to the greats of the genre. It is the cinematic equivalent of a perfectly mixed, but somewhat challenging cocktail, the kind you sip but don’t gulp. These films almost always tend to be European, though the American thriller industry would do itself a favor to re calibrate a little in its directions.
While they’re working on that, lets all be grateful for Federic Mermoud’s Moka, a slick, often confusing little revenge number which offers a nice respite during the mess that is Spider-Man release week. Think of it as the opposite-end-of-the-spectrum driver movie of the summer.
The film opens tightly, effectively, and breathlessly. In a worldess few moments, our heroine Diane escapes a sanatorium, gets into a (mocha-colored) car, and sets out on a journey to find the driver of a Mercedes coupe that killed her son not too long a go – he was a violin prodigy, natch – an event that set off the series of events that landed her in the aforementioned sanatorium.
It seems, then, that the film will be a road movie / whodunit-mystery but the story based on a novel by Tatiana De Rosnay (the woman behind “Sarah’s Key”) has other plans. The whodunnit part is quickly solved – leads seem to pop-up relatively easily, and the suspects emerge naturally, and the next part of the film is more of a face-off, than anything else.
But, don’t think of it as a face-off of the Hollywood kind, after all, we are dealing with something Chabrol-like here. The face-off in question involves Diane’s struggle to figure out what to do with her newly acquired prey, while developing a elegantly morbid fascination with the seemingly normal, everyday lives of the people who caused the death of her son. The outcome is as uncertain as it is inevitable, and heartbreaking.
A movie like this depends heavily on the quality of the actors in question and Mermoud is blessed with two French powerhouses here. Diane is played by the always stirring Emanuelle Devos, and opposite her Nathalie Baye (who was in such French thriller classics as Tell No One, and Chabrol’s The Flower of Evil) as the bleach blonde object of her revenge. Both perform at a career high caliber here. The two circle each other in a delicately balanced dance of politeness, passive aggression, and simmering hate. Mermoud lets this tension build almost languidly. Clearly, he is not in a rush, despite Moka‘s slim 89 minute run time. The movie therefore sometimes comes off more as a character study, and not a thriller thriller, but the film still feels like a reward to the viewer.
Elegant, and confident, this is the most emotionally adult thriller of the season. And we mean that as a compliment.