Moscow, Belgium (Belgium, 2008)

January 22, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Moscow, Belgium Poster

Moscow, Belgium is a romantic comedy with a different flavor. Although it follows many of the familiar patterns that characterize movies of this genre, it does enough things differently to allow it to step outside of the norm. While some elements of the story are cut from the cloth of fantasy from which all romantic comedies are woven, the characters are down-to-earth and real. They are not pretty people searching for soul mates but the kind of individuals one might meet on the street or in a supermarket parking lot, which is where they first connect.

At 41 years old, Matty (Barbara Sarafian) has seen her life come to a screeching halt. Six months ago, her husband, Werner (Johan Heldenbergh), walked out on her for a woman half her age. Now, she's left as the sole provider for three children, although Werner occasionally shows up to wonder whether he made a mistake and to take the two youngest off Matty's hands for a few days. The oldest, 17-year old Vera (Anemone Valcke), is embarrassed by her father's philandering and does her best to avoid him. Enter 28-year old Johnny (Jurgen Delanaet), a truck driver who meets Matty when she backs her car into his vehicle in the supermarket parking lot. A screaming match ensues, but Johnny later feels a sense of remorse and drops by Matty's apartment with an offer to fix her broken trunk. This leads to dinner, then a date, then a few hours of passion in Johnny's truck cab. However, although the last thing Matty needs is a relationship with a younger man, Johnny is smitten with her and appears to be making inroads until Werner provides some unpleasant information about his past.

The stock elements of the romantic comedy are in place: boy meets girl, boy and girl get to know one another, Cupid strikes, complications ensue, and things turn out sort-of how one might expect. I say "sort-of" because director Christophe Van Rompaey, making his feature debut, is determined not to wallow in sentiment or give in completely to romance at the end. Yes, it's an upbeat conclusion, but the movie refuses the urge to provide a "happily ever after" wrap-up. One question looms large: Is this movie really about the relationship between Matty and Johnny or is it about Matty's growth as a person to the state where she can envision a life without her creep of a husband? In many romantic comedies, a satisfying ending demands a belief that the characters have found true love and will be with each other long after the end credits have rolled. That's not the case here. Things are more ambiguous. There's a line in the movie about how the passion of a new romance lasts only six months and one wonders if this applies here. It may be that Matty and Johnny aren't fated to spend the rest of their lives in each other's company, yet that may be enough to pull Matty's life out of the doledrums.

Moscow, Belgium takes place in a town in Belgium named after the city in Russia. It's not the most inspiring of places and the single notable feature is a train that is forever passing through. The setting is not the only thing atypical for a romantic comedy. Neither the unkempt Johnny nor the run-down Matty represents a traditional lead for this kind of movie, and the "reverse" dozen-year age gap (with the woman being older) is rare. Plus, these aren't wealthy people. They're hard-working, blue collar individuals who can't afford expensive gifts or extravagant gestures. And the dark blot on Johnny's past isn't some little, easily forgiven misdeed. It's something that will cause most viewers to think of him as less than a likeable rogue.

For the most part, the humor is wry and understated. Moscow, Belgium isn't interested in causing big, uncontrolled guffaws, but there are plenty of opportunities for smiles and chuckles. The family dinner with Johnny and Werner sitting across from each other is a trove of snarky moments as the two engage in verbal parries while an exasperated Matty plays the role of peacemaker. This is also an adult movie in that both the male and female leads have full-frontal scenes. There's a little bit of humor in both, although the source of the amusement is different (ribald for Johnny's scene; subtle for Matty's).

There are no big-name stars. Barbara Serafian, who is excellent, has a thin, eclectic resume. She looks a little like Frances McDormand and has appeared in a few internationally distributed films such as Peter Greenaway's 8 1/2 Women. Her co-star, Jurgen Delanaet, is primarily a stage actor. The movie's real find, Anemone Valcke, is making her feature debut. Moscow, Belgium also features Serafian's real-life son, Julian Borsani, playing Matty's son.

The film begins and ends with a close-up of Matty's face, and what one reads in her expression says all that needs to be said about the journey she takes over the course of the production's 100 minute running length. When we first see her, she appears haggard. Her hair hangs lifelessly and her expression is strained and flat. At the end, she's younger and alive. There's a spark in her eyes. Her hair flows behind her, stirred by a slight breeze. Whether Matty has found true love or not is a determination for each viewer to make, but there's no doubting that she may have found something more valuable.

Moscow, Belgium (Belgium, 2008)

Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2008-12-19
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: English subtitled Flemish and Dutch
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1