By Devapriya Sanyal and Melissa Webb.
Frederic Mermoud’s French-thriller Moka (2016) centers on a grieving woman who is on the hunt for the killers of her young son, fatally wounded in a hit-and-run accident. The film shows her pursuit of a couple in Evian, whom she suspects are the responsible perpetrators. Emmanuelle Devos is sublime as the grieving and tortured mother, Diane. The film’s focus on a female-protagonist (unusual by the standards of any kind of cinema) ought to be celebrated.
The first couple of scenes are shot in the interior, which creates an appropriately claustrophobic atmosphere for this intense hour-and-a-half of morbid and obsessive revenge-seeking. In some ways, I felt it was rather like a bildungsroman, as Diane develops and changes over the course of her harrowing quest. Towards the beginning of the film, an elderly private detective informs Diane that a bus driver – the sole witness to the accident – has told him that a blonde woman driving a coffee-coloured Mercedes (lending the film its title) killed her son. He gives her a list of four Mercedes, which she investigates. Her investigation leads her to discover that the owner of the car that was driven during the killing of her son is a beauty salon proprietor named Marlene (played by Nathalie Baye). Diane strategically befriends Marlene, but this relationship complicates her mission for revenge, which becomes more tortuous than Diane could have imagined.
As she becomes increasingly embroiled in the role she must play to seek revenge for her young son (whose ghost she repeatedly encounters), Diane gets in touch with her inner self. Somewhat perversely, she forces herself into Marlene’s life, becoming a client who has her makeup done on a regular basis by the woman she deems instrumental in her son’s death. As the two interact, they start to develop a close relationship. Diane asks Marlene a lot of personal questions; Marlene has no problem confiding in Diane, willingly opening her heart. Diane expresses to Marlene and her partner, Michel, that she is enamoured of the Mercedes the couple drive, willing to buy it at the advertised price. She even follows Michel to his work-place and puts up a most tenacious front in obtaining the car. Furthermore, she strikes up a relationship with Marlene’s daughter, Elodie; they swim together and Diane listens to Elodie’s inner-most pain. Diane is the friend her mother never can be and the unhappy teenager is happy to confide in this unusual woman.
On her road to seek revenge– both literally and metaphorically– there are things that Diane realises have lain dormant within her for quite some time. For instance, she finds that she has a long-unsatisfied craving for love (and to be the object of someone’s desire), which she finally expresses through her relationship with Vincent, the drug dealer whom she meets on the ferry crossing from Lausanne to Evian. These longings for intimacy are also able to be recognized through the various roles she chooses to play while she follows Marlene and Michel. There are many dynamics at play within the film, and within Diane herself. On a surface level, the film is a simple story of a woman with a single-minded goal: to avenge her son’s death. But it is more than that: in some ways, it is about the conflict between different ways of being mothers and, more importantly, of being women. We see further evidence that the film is doing more than showing a conventional revenge-story during the final-reveal-sequence. When confronted with her son’s actual killer – the young Elodie – Diane is unable to commit the act of violence about which she has dreamed. Elodie’s version of the truth impacts Diane’s dedication to revenge: Elodie informs Diane that she had wanted to save Luc, but that her stepfather had advised her to keep driving. When Michel comes seeking Elodie’s stalker to kill him/her, in a moment of breath-taking suspense, Diane shoots all of the bullets in the pistol Vincent had gotten for her.
The audience initially believes Diane has completed her mission by killing Michel. However, as Michel recovers from the shock of being shot at, the camera reveals the fact that Diane has actually emptied all of her bullets into the Mercedes; she has resituated her rage and aggression towards the car, choosing to view this inanimate object as her son’s killer rather than the living and breathing people with whom she has developed relationships. I had the feeling that perhaps it would be difficult for her to kill any of the three people she befriended in Evian: throughout the film, Diane’s vengeful streak was always in danger of turning into empathy. The fluidity of emotions and the complexity of human beings is on full display here. Mermoud writes his protagonist surely as revenge-seeking and tormented, but also as compassionate and forgiving, only wishing to find some peace in the death of her son. The background score is lovely, for the most part being Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, a part of the repertoire of Adrienne. Adrienne is Luc’s friend with whom Diane nurtures a relationship, as she tries to find Luc within her self. The piece of music plays in a video that Adrienne shows her; it is a performance by Luc. The sublime music fills the screen and the credits roll by. The myriad of ghosts – both the metaphoric hauntings of a troubled woman’s mind and Luc’s recurring presence – have, at last, been laid to rest.
Devapriya Sanyal has a Ph.D. in English Literature from JNU, India. She is the author of From Text to Screen: Issues and Images in Schindler’s List and Through the Eyes of a Cinematographer: A Biography of Soumendu Roy (Harper Collins, 2017).
Melissa Webb is an editorial assistant for Film International and received her MA in English from Rutgers University-Camden in January 2017. She helps program the Reel East Film Festival.