The avenger

Emmanuelle Devos on playing a woman stalking her son's killer in Moka.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Emmanuelle Devos on Frédéric Mermoud's Moka based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay:
Emmanuelle Devos on Frédéric Mermoud's Moka based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay: "The landscape does have an effect on your acting." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Moka star Emmanuelle Devos at the start of our conversation at the French Institute Alliance Française, mentioned seeing Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon in Lillian Hellman's Little Foxes and Laurie Metcalf and Chris Cooper in Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2 on Broadway. She has a long history with her first director, Arnaud Desplechin (My Sex Life... Or How I Got Into An Argument, Esther Kahn, A Christmas Tale, Kings & Queen), who also directed her son Raphaël Cohen in My Golden Days. Desplechin and Mathieu Amalric regular Grégoire Hetzel is Moka's co-composer. Emmanuelle and I had spoken at the Tribeca Film Festival with Jérôme Bonnell for his Le Temps De L'Aventure (Just A Sigh).

Marlène (Nathalie Baye) with Diane (Emmanuelle Devos):
Marlène (Nathalie Baye) with Diane (Emmanuelle Devos): "There was that feeling of comfort having Nathalie's character look after me."

Nathalie Baye with David Clavel, Olivier Chantreau, Diane Rouxel, and Samuel Labarthe are the supporting cast for Frédéric Mermoud's thriller Moka, co-written with Antonin Martin-Hilbert, based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay, which begins with a beautiful view accompanied by an unsettling noise.

Diane (Emmanuelle Devos) is looking out over Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) and at first we may not be aware that the knocking we hear comes from her head bumping against the window. Soon we learn that her teenage son was killed in a car accident on the streets of Lausanne. The driver of a moka-colored car has fled the scene. As local police seemed to be sitting on their hands and getting nowhere, Diane hired a private detective and finds out that a blond woman and a male in the passenger seat were seen by a witness.

Devos's Diane, in her best John Wayne western mien, sets out to find the brown vehicle and its - definitely in her opinion - black-hearted coward of a driver. Her search eventually takes her from Lausanne in Switzerland across the lake and border to the French spa town Evian and to a perfumery, owned by Marlène (Natalie Baye). A particularly disquieting and marvelously intense scene has Baye do the makeup for Devos - both actresses are at the top of their game in wordlessly revealing the state of mind of their characters.

Emmanuelle Devos to play Diane:
Emmanuelle Devos to play Diane: "I wrote a journal from her perspective from the day of her son's death …"

Like a detective incognito, Diane, who calls herself Hélène now, infiltrates her suspect's life. There is Michel (David Clavel), the boyfriend, a well-being coach at a spa who teaches water gymnastics to groups of women and likes to dress like a mixture of a Seventies pop star and a Nineties fashion conscious accountant. It is always a pleasure to have a story unfold on screen where you don't guess the outcome and once it is revealed, you see how it had all been perfectly laid out for you.

Emmanuelle was well on her way to taking in four museums during her stay in New York.

Anne-Katrin Titze: You have been busy in New York already. You saw Little Foxes and A Doll's House, Part 2 and went to the Frick. How was the Frick?

Emmanuelle Devos: The Frick! I like this museum. It's my favourite in New York.

AKT: It's beautiful. I love it, too. I just came over from MoMA, from the press preview of the Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive exhibit. Today is Frank Lloyd Wright's 150th birthday. Maybe we can start with location and Moka, because it's so important in this film. Lausanne...

Emmanuelle Devos on Nathalie Baye as Marlène:
Emmanuelle Devos on Nathalie Baye as Marlène: "What happened was that the nicer her character became, the more I felt the horror ..."

ED: …and Evian…

AKT: …and the lake…

ED: …which is a real part of the movie.

AKT: How much as an actor do you interact with landscape? Do you ever rehearse with a landscape? It's a strange question, I admit.

ED: No, no, it's interesting. It's the director who chooses the landscape that he is going to put you in. But of course, the landscape does have an effect on your acting. It can't help but have an effect on your acting, it's one of the elements that's part of the film. And here certainly it's Lac Léman.

AKT: The depth of the story - Lac Léman is the big hole in the middle of our not knowing. Last time we spoke was when you were here for Le Temps De L'Aventure at Tribeca and we were discussing a scene in that film where you are crashing a funeral.

You said that this way of being an impostor is a bit like the profession of acting itself. In Moka, you are a sort of detective. Is that detective work the other side of acting? In other words, is acting being a detective?

"This is not a woman who is seeking glamour, it's a woman who's decided to go out to find the killer of her son."

ED: Oh, yes. I think it's the same thing. I think definitely because it involves the same idea of research. As an actor you are really researching a role. In this case, my character is trying to find a car and trying to find the people who were the killers of her son. It's kind of similar to the kind of work a detective would do.

I think a lot of times the work of an actor is for me one that correlates to the work of an archeologist. It's a kind of archeology and also an investigation. Each role involves doing this kind of research, this kind of digging. For example, for this particular role, what I did for this character was that I wrote a journal from her perspective from the day of her son's death up until the day that she decides to go after his killer.

AKT: Did you read the novel beforehand?

ED: Yes, and I know Tatiana de Rosnay.

AKT: The scene I found most fascinating in Moka is the makeup scene, when Nathalie Baye [as Marlène] puts makeup on your face. I have never seen a scene like that in cinema. That kind of closeness when we know what you are thinking. It's always a very special kind of intimacy when someone does your makeup in general. Could you talk a bit about that scene?

"I think a lot of times the work of an actor is for me one that correlates to the work of an archeologist."

ED: I think what was interesting with this particular scene - which was very difficult to play - was that there was really two things going on. There was that feeling of comfort having Nathalie's character look after me. She's taking care of me. But at the same time of having that feeling of comfort, I also had this horrible feeling inside, thinking that here is this really nice woman who is potentially the killer of my son. And what happened was that the nicer her character became, the more I felt the horror, the more difficult it became for me to deal with the dichotomy.

AKT: It turns a bit into a Mildred Pierce story. I mean her story with the daughter and that well-being man [Michel played by David Clavel]. There is another connection to water. You have a scene where you swim with him and also one with the daughter [Diane Rouxel as Elodie]. It produces a strange feeling.

ED: It's the story of the movie. To put a woman in a bath of horror, in fact. It's a bath of horror that you're immersing yourself in. We have that expression in French that you're drowning yourself inside a problem or drenching yourself with the problem. It is a very strange feeling, almost like you're fraternising with the enemy. It was very strange playing it.

AKT: Let's talk about your costumes. In Moka you are wearing more or less the same green jacket throughout. In Le Temps De L'Aventure you also had this one outfit.

CinéSalon: Enigmatic Emmanuelle Devos poster at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York
CinéSalon: Enigmatic Emmanuelle Devos poster at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

ED: Yes, it's all one day in Le Temps De L'Aventure.

AKT: So these clothes have to be perfect. Do the costumes help you to get into character?

ED: In Moka we have a character who leaves home. She just has a small suitcase. It was something we thought about but didn't film, was how does she really live? Showing her living out of her car. How does she shower? How does she wash? What does she do. It's definitely not a glamorous role.

This is not a woman who is seeking glamour, it's a woman who's decided to go out to find the killer of her son. What she wears is important. I'm in a film that's going to come out on October 11 in France and I play a business woman and I have all these terrific costumes. So I was very happy with that. Evening dresses etc.

AKT: What is the name of the film?

ED: Number One [Numéro Une, directed by Tonie Marshall].

AKT: Any other projects coming up?

ED: This one is ready to come out. Afterwards, I will be filming another movie with Philippe Faucon.

Moka US poster
Moka US poster Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: What are your plans for the rest of your stay in New York? Any other museums or shows?

ED: I want to go to The Met, MoMA and The Museum of Natural History. I love that museum. Two days to go to all my favourite museums.

AKT: Don't miss the Rei Kawakubo and Comme des Garçons: Art of the In-Between Costume institute exhibition at The Met.

ED: Really?

AKT: It's fabulous, such a different approach to clothes. You won't regret it.

Coming up - Emmanuelle Devos discusses working with Arnaud Desplechin, seeing Buster Keaton's Seven Chances as her first movie, Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Sophia Loren, maintaining dignity and detesting victimisation.

Moka opens in the US at Film Forum in New York on June 14.

CinéSalon: Enigmatic Emmanuelle Devos at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York screens on Tuesdays from June 13 through July 25.

P.S. Cynthia Nixon and Laurie Metcalf each won Best Actress Tony Awards on Sunday, June 11.

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