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Interview: Emmanuelle Devos on Playing a Grieving Woman in 'Moka' and Looking Back at Two Decades of Work

By Jose Solís.


Emmanuelle Devos puts her sunglasses on. We are sitting in a room surrounded by marble busts and large windows, and she finds the light too bright. There surrounded by art pieces and posters of her new film Moka, she has never looked more like a movie star. And yet, her effortless grace and warm smile make her equally earthy. She speaks in a soft voice, laughs a lot, and has bright answers to all my questions. She was in New York to celebrate the opening of Frédéric Mermoud’s Moka, in which she plays Diane, a woman trying to avenge the death of her child at the hands of a merciless driver. She comes to believe she found the culprit and it turns out to be Marlène, played by Nathalie Baye. What follows is a psychological game in which we see Diane become both appalled and attracted by this woman.

Besides the opening of Moka, Devos is the center of a retrospective at FIAF’s CinéSalon, which over the course of the summer will screen eight of her best known works including Read My Lips, Violette and My Sex Life...or How I Got Into an Argument. I noticed Devos was using a Manhattan Theatre Club plastic cup as a repurposed mug for her herbal tea (you gotta love that unlike most patrons who trash those immediately after consuming their beverages, Devos wanted to extend its life) and upon finding out she had attended a performance of The Little Foxes I asked her what she thought about the play...

Read the interview after the jump. 

EMMANUELLE DEVOS: I feel a little bad because I didn’t like the play (laughs) for me it was so formal, so technical, it’s like a wax museum, it was too cold. One of the things I found quite strange was that the actors were all applauded, except for the actors who played the servants. It was an odd feeling, it was almost like being in the deep South in the era of segregation and they weren’t being recognized by the applause. It made a very strange impression.

JOSE: In terms of American actresses, the play features two of the best, are there any actresses from the States you’d love to work with?

EMMANUELLE DEVOS: It makes me feel even worse that I didn’t like the play because I like the actresses in it. I think there are a lot of actresses I like, and it’s a very broad range going from Meryl Streep to Kristen Stewart, Julia Roberts and Frances McDormand.

JOSE: In Moka your character goes through grief and terrible loss, but the character is also learning how to become a “woman” again after the world saw her only as a “mother”. Can you talk about this process?

EMMANUELLE DEVOS: I had forgotten that, but that is what the film is about, how do you come back to life after a tragedy like that. It’s not about who the guilty party was, but about how Diane is getting herself out of the hell she was experiencing, to come back to earth, to start living again.

JOSE: We don’t see your character’s son in the movie. Can you talk about the back story you created in order to know what Diane’s relationship with her son was like?

EMMANUELLE DEVOS: Frédéric and I spoke about it, but the son also has a backstory in the novel. We actually shot a few scenes with the son but we decided not to use them because they made for too classic a form of narration for this kind of story. I think Diane’s relationship with her son was fairly normal but it’s important to remember he was an only child, and those are very specific relationships.

In an interview you gave last year you said you didn’t get to play mothers very often. And in this movie we see you play a mother going through the worst thing imaginable. I wondered if having to play Diane in Moka and going to those emotional extremes helped you deal with similar fears in real life?

I actually don’t like to play mothers because they aren’t portrayed well, they’re very cliché so I usually don’t accept these kinds of roles. I’m also very good at separating what I do on the stage or screen, so playing someone who goes through what Diane does, didn’t affect my life.

Can you talk about what it was like to work with Nathalie Baye?

Nathalie is an incredibly interesting person, she’s lived a lot, she’s had a very full life with so many experiences, and she has a lot of opinions on things and they’re opinions I really like. If I have a problem, whether it’s with people or a job, she’s good at giving good advice on life, men, relationships. She also has an impressive filmography, so it was a real pleasure to work with her. What’s also very interesting is she has a nice appearance, but she’s almost two sided, underneath this niceness there’s something strange, there’s a level of coldness in her. When you see her in the movie you get a sense that maybe she’s not as innocent, maybe she did do something, I love that about her.

Moka is a very understated thriller just like Read My Lips. Why are these the kinds of genre films that attract you?

I really like this genre and it’s a lot of fun to play these roles. These films are very popular with audiences and they go to see them.

This is the second film you’ve done with Mermoud, and you’ve worked several times with Audiard and Desplechin. What are you looking for in a collaborator that makes you want to work with them more than once?

It’s not something specific, when you’ve had a good experience with a director you want to repeat the experience. But you have the knowledge that it won’t be the same, for example with Mermoud there were different ways in which we worked together, it’s not something like a ritual, when you work with someone again it’s more of a renewal. It may not always be comfortable either, as an actor you want to give them something different, but maybe the director is also trying to give you a different experience.

I love the title FIAF gave their retrospective of your work. “Enigmatic” is a great adjective to describe your work, what did you think of this title?

(Laughs) People always describe me like that! “Mysterious”, “enigmatic”, “we don’t know what you’re going to do at any given moment”, so I’ve gotten used to that. 

Is it surreal to have a retrospective of your work? Does it make you try to find threads in the work you’ve done so far or does it make you nostalgic?

In a sense it is surreal, but I have been making films for 20 years so there is a body of work there. I’m delighted they’re doing this in New York because it is two decades of filmmaking. In France there was a retrospective and I had the chance to watch Read My Lips after not having seen it for 14 years, and you know what, I was really happy with what I saw. It was marvelous! It hasn’t aged, of course I’ve grown, so because of this I could appreciate the character, rather than look at myself I could enjoy the character. It made me think that perhaps there are films I’ve done that I should be watching again, maybe the same will happen, maybe I will appreciate them more for the characters and think less about seeing myself.

Moka is in theaters tomorrow. For information on Enigmatic Emmanuelle Devos visit FIAF.


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Reader Comments (6)

It's been so long since I caught up with this woman's career and I remembering LOVING her in Read My Lips when I first saw it. Probably time for a revisit. I think the only other thing I've seen her in was Violette from 2013, which I don't really recall very well either.

Loved her comment about the little foxes, kind of felt the same way myself

June 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

Peter -- If you haven't seen her in KINGS & QUEEN, you must. I think she's even better in that then in Read My Lips. Totally great performance. Love this actress.

June 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

many thanks

June 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTMSKY

Good interview! It helps when the interviewee is so sincere.

June 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I love her in everything I saw, but Kings and Queen was special.

But it's such a fascinating character as written that people take her for granted, because it's a great part. It's a great part but it's extremely tricky and complicated, it has a nearly impossible arc to sell. And she had an incredible actor in the same movie playing a very broad act: she could even disappear in she played too quiet, but she keeps the restraint and still manages not to be outshined by Amalric.

It's such a rich movie. I can safely say this is one of the 10 best screenplays I've ever seen.

June 13, 2017 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Without exaggeration, this woman has taught me to look at not only acting but cinema as well in a whole new way. There are no words to sum up how I adore her and how I want her to be in every single movie I see.

And yes, Kings and Queen is perhaps peak Devos as well as one of the deepest most emotionally rich films ever made

June 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGoran

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