Moscow, Belgium

June, 2009, Comedy

Moscow, Belgium

Wry (rahy) adjective – disdainfully ironic or amusing

Random House Dictionary

Thanks to a trio of exceptional performances, the bemused manner of Belgian director Christophe Van Rompae and a script bent on demolishing the last vestige of conventional attitudes about the sanctity of marriage and the importance of the nuclear family, this romantic comedy deftly examines the manner in which heart and hormones impinge on conventional sexual mores. Perversely clever about the mysterious power of  lust, Moscow, Belgium is the most subversive comedy of recent memory.

Matty, (Barbara Sarafian) is a 40-something postmistress and haggard mother of three, grappling unsuccessfully with the departure of Werner, her art professor spouse whose mid-life crisis has driven him into the arms of one of his students. Despite his unapologetic damage to their two decade-long marriage, Matty’s anxious for his return; not out of passionate attraction perhaps, but rather a simple desire to get her family’s life back to normal. But a fender-bender in the parking lot of a grocery store located in Moscow, one of Ghent’s well-ordered suburbs, introduces her to Johnny, a tattooed truck driver with a penchant for inflammatory remarks about the sinister qualities of women in general and her driving skills in particular. He’s a red-headed doofus in his late twenties who responds to her vituperative berating with a loopy grin and the request that she go out with him. Thus does Eros enter Matty’s beleaguered battle with the conflicting demands of motherhood, work and a self-absorbed spouse who sends inconsistent signals about wanting to come back home…

Matty’s initial reaction to Johnny’s pursuit combines incredulity with annoyance; he’s loud, opinionated and nursing his own wounds from a marriage gone so badly wrong it put him briefly in jail. When she adamantly rejects his overtures, he simply ignores her blunt denigrations, insisting that he’s found his soul-mate. Alternately frustrated and flattered by his attention, she agrees to meet him for a drink; that quickly leads to an awkward but vigorous tryst on the narrow bunk in the cab of his truck. Recovering quickly from post-coital pliability, she shrugs off his declarations of love by insisting she’s just used him as a one-night stand; he declares that she’s his Mona Lisa and promises to buy her expensive shoes on his next trip to Italy because she has such beautiful feet.

The children react to their mother’s new suitor with the wary suspicion kids exhibit when their parents attempt to justify the inexplicable. When Matty invites Johnny to up to her apartment for dinner, he admits he’s a tee-totaler because booze led him to beat up his ex. Matty’s youngest daughter responds to the admission by using her tarot cards to read Johnny’s future while older sibling Vera, a 16 year-old harboring her own erotic secret, sees Matty’s attraction to Johnny as an opportunity to leverage her adolescent sexual appetites against her parents’ respective infidelities.

Werner resurfaces on Matty’s radar screen, insinuating that he may not be up to the physical and emotional demands of relationship with a younger woman; Johnny has a chance encounter with this ex-wife and responds by putting a beer keg through the windshield of her boyfriend’s sports car. Torn between a hot-headed sentimentalist with a checkered past and a phlegmatic, indecisive husband who treats her like hired help…what’s a woman to do?  

The juxtaposition of an unlikely romance with dead-on observations about the ebb and flow of otherwise perfectly ordinary lives provides Moscow, Belgium with its sharp focus; Matty’s not especially attractive, Johnny doesn’t possess the physical appeal of the usual romantic lead and the attention paid to the daily duties of working-class family life - - fixing meals, doing the laundry, chatting with co-workers at the office - - give this movie a captivating authenticity greatly enhanced by the performances of its leads.

Teetering on the brink of becoming drab before her time, Sarafian’s Matty doesn’t shrink from displaying a less-than-erotic body accented with wisps of lackluster hair that cry out for a good shampoo; her blistering anger at the boorish behavior of both husband and suitor suggest a women who is simultaneously fed up with the childish demands of men who should know better even as she admits she can’t be happy without one or the other of them in her life. Jurgen Delnaet plays Johnny with an equal mixture of pig-headedness and blue collar charm; with scruffy beard and sly smile, Delnaet makes the lovesick Johnny a delightful combination of low-rent Lothario and wistful man-child - - just the right blend of adoration and vulnerability that might win the heart of the practical housewife who reigns over her brood with a bewildering mixture of sweet affection and the no-nonsense style of a Marine drill sergeant.

But its Johan Heldenbergh as the clueless Werner who earns “best of class” acting honors in this domestic ménage a trios; with few lines but sufficient facial expressions to rival Lon Chaney, the 42 year-old actor creates the living embodiment of those men who evidence absolutely no interest in what their wives think, much less what they need to successfully live their own lives. As Heldenbergh plays him, Werner is the sort of husband who thinks his wife’s highest ambition is to fulfill his needs; chef, housekeeper, bedmate…he doesn’t see Matty as a partner, but rather someone who performs these functions so he can lead a contented life. He’s not consciously or deliberately cruel, but how should a woman react to being treated like the human equivalent of a trained seal in a circus act? Alternately whining and cajoling, Werner is the ultimate male jerk and Heldenbergh inhabits him perfectly.

Most of the director’s previous work has involved productions for Flemish television, which evidences itself here in stolid cinematography and pedestrian editing. Limitations on the production budget probably account for the number of interior scenes which often have the look of “talking head” documentaries…but the movie’s less-than-remarkable visual style only serves to focus attention on the sly humor to be found in its screenplay and the outstanding performances of its leads.

The Verdict? A relatively slow pace and its mordant take on the lop-sided advantage which contemporary marriage still gives to the male of the species make Moscow, Belgium a slick example of tongue-in-cheek post feminism. That may well limit its box-office appeal, but if you like movies with a satiric bite not often found in Hollywood’s romantic comedies, you’ll really enjoy this.

Jake's Takes comments powered by Disqus