The private eye can’t tell her much about the hit-and-run accident that killed her teenage son. Only that a couple was in the car, a blonde woman was driving and the vehicle (either a BMW or a Mercedes) was coffee-colored — a.k.a. Moka, the name of this suspenseful drama about grief. The information is slim, but it’s enough to raise Diane (the great cinematic sphinx Emmanuelle Devos) out of her deep despondency and onto the Lake Geneva ferry that takes her from her home in Lausanne, Switzerland, to Evian, France, where her son Luc was run down.
The P.I. has located four cars in the area that match witnesses’ descriptions. So Diane launches a one-woman stakeout, tracking the owners down and studying them from her own parked car. She feels she’s found her perps when she spies on Marlène (Nathalie Baye), a brashly artificial blonde, and her partner Michel (David Clavel). But, rather than alert the authorities, Diane insinuates herself into both their lives, one at a time.
Noting that he (suspiciously) wants to sell his Mercedes, Diane presents herself to Michel as a very eager, almost stalker-ish buyer. Separately, she visits Marlène at the woman’s beauty salon, seeking makeup tips for a nonexistent wedding.
Baye, a perfect choice for the part, makes Marlène a seen-it-all, up-by-her-bootstraps businesswoman who appreciates Diane’s attention. But from the very first she detects that there’s something . . . off about this woman who keeps turning up during her daily routine.
Director Frédéric Mermoud, adapting his film from a novel by Tatiana De Rosnay (Sarah’s Key), dispenses information in bits and pieces. We have to wonder, at first, if Diane is a reliable protagonist, or if grief has unhinged her. We also wonder if Marlène and Michel are benign, or perhaps secretly monsters who could turn the tables on an in-over-her-head Diane. Things grow more complicated when the scenario expands to include Marlène’s restless daughter Elodie (Diane Rouxel), a young drug dealer named Vincent (Olivier Chantreau) and an unlicensed gun.
Moka has the slow-boil pacing of a Claude Chabrol suspense film, and a touch of novelist Patricia Highsmith’s (The Talented Mr. Ripley) interest in dangerous role playing. But the mystery is secondary to the film’s real subject, an exploration (if a metaphorically exaggerated one) of what it takes to move out of sorrow and back into the world of the living.
Life, death, mortality and obsolescence are also at the heart of The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, opening on July 21. For anyone who loves documentaries, just the fact that it’s the latest from Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) should hasten you to the theater.
The focus is on Dorfman in her studio, following the announcement of her retirement. She’s getting old, yes, but that’s not why she’s stopping. The film she used for the large-scale portraits throughout her career is no longer available. After declaring bankruptcy, Polaroid was sold off and acquired by new owners. Consider Dorfman’s artwork yet one more victim of the digital age.
She likens all the old Polaroid cameras now as artifacts, “like ashtrays.” When two art restorers carry an early, nearly life-size photo of her husband Harvey lengthwise out of his office to clean it, they resemble nothing so much as pallbearers. Many of the famous people she photographed (Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden and good friend Allen Ginsberg) are long dead. Presumably, many members of the nonfamous families she photographed in her friendly way have also passed on.
But if mortality lurks at the edges of The B-Side, its flipside — an appreciation of life – is always front-and-center, embodied by Dorfman herself. “I was just one lucky little Jewish girl who escaped by the skin of her teeth,” she says, in her typically modest, self-effacing way, about leaving the chaos of New York and moving to Massachusetts.
“I don’t like to take pictures of people who are sad, and I don’t like to take pictures of people who are brokenhearted,” she says in response to critics who consider her portraits too upbeat or even trivial. “I somehow have this misguided therapeutic idea that it’s my role in the universe to make people feel better.”
Whatever you happen to think about her work, she’s incredibly endearing, and so is the movie.
Moka. With Emmanuelle Devos, Nathalie Baye. Directed by Frédéric Mermoud. In French with subtitles. Unrated. 89 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography. A documentary by Errol Morris. Rated R. 76 minutes. Opens July 21 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.