MUBI is a streaming service catering to cinephiles who believe in quality over quantity. Each day, MUBI adds a new film to its library, where it will stay for 30 days, after which it circulates out and gives room for another new entry. Throughout 2019, we will highlight one MUBI movie per month to help illustrate the catalog’s breadth and importance.
When the killer is unknown in the death that incites a plot into motion, it’s generally safe to assume that the plot itself will focus on the resolution of that unknown cause. That’s the very basis of mystery narratives: to provide closure to questions of motive, identity, and cause for lingering criminality. However, Moka is something different. We aren’t really invested in solving the mystery that sets its protagonist into motion, but are instead focused almost entirely on the investigator’s emotional state, as rationally compromised and personally motivated as it is. The result is less mystery than character study, but that study leads us down the hazardous path of what grief will motivate us to do.
Diane (Emmanuelle Devos) mourns the death of her teenage son, who was killed in a hit-and-run accident. She hires a private investigator to find the driver of the car, and after finding the specific car, he tells Diane that a blonde woman was driving. Looking for proof and for vengeance, Diane goes to the town where the owners of the car live, only to find it up for sale. So she starts imploring Michel (David Clavel) to let her purchase the vehicle that killed her son, meanwhile befriending his blonde wife, Marlène (Nathalie Baye).
That Marlène was driving when Diane’s son was killed is the foregone conclusion that drives the plot, so the tension rests not with whether or not Diane will solve her son’s killing, but on what exactly she intends to do about it. She becomes pushy and desperate in outbidding another potential purchaser of the vehicle, setting off Michel’s suspicions as Diane’s stalking becomes more and more obvious. Diane buys a gun, and as we watch her train with it, it’s clear that even she is uncertain just what she intends to do with it. She goes to the salon that Marlène owns and operates, just to scope out the certainty of whether Marlène had an alibi for the day of the collision, but even though Marlène was not working that day, Diane finds herself drawn into a friendship with the woman.
Director and co-writer Frédéric Mermoud is compelled by Diane’s conflicted psychology, driven by vengeance but unsure of her ability to execute the kind of justice she thinks she needs when confronted by the humanity of those who wronged her. Mermoud opts to shoot many scenes of Diane alone, with Emmanuelle Devos conveying the most subtle of emotions as Diane compromises her reality bit by bit in the pursuit of reclaiming happiness. It’s a bravura performance that only becomes more nuanced when contrasted with Nathalie Baye as Marlène, who isn’t so naive as to think Diane is completely upfront about her motives for striking up a friendship, but is also guardedly willing to extend an olive branch to a woman clearly unstable and attempting to hold it together. Marlène’s empathy becomes a sticking point for Diane’s convictions to seek vengeance, and it’s that tension that drives the film to its inevitable and poignant climax.
My framing of this narrative as a mystery has probably led a lot of you to the necessary conclusion that there’s more to the hit-and-run than what Diane believes, and while that’s true, the resolution of the plot is not quite so surprising or complicated as one might expect. The real draw, though, is Diane’s emotional journey as she works herself up into a state where she could potentially take another person’s life. It’s that descent into amoral despair that makes Moka a trip worth taking, and even if you aren’t shocked by the ending, you’ll spend the whole time wondering what you might be driven to do if you were in Diane’s place.