Movie Review: 'Moscow, Belgium'

Matty (Barbara Sarafian), a run-down 41-year-old divorcee, is among the characters who aren't sure of what they want in "Moscow, Belgium."
Matty (Barbara Sarafian), a run-down 41-year-old divorcee, is among the characters who aren't sure of what they want in "Moscow, Belgium." (Neoclassics Films)
By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 29, 2009

Most romantic comedies involve a collision of one sort or another, but "Moscow, Belgium" takes it literally: Backing out of a parking space at the grocery in her one-horse Belgian town, the weary, acerbic, soured-by-circumstance Matty (Barbara Sarafian) is rear-ended by Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet). He's a 29-year-old truck driver bearing his own fresh scars from the war between the sexes. A deluge of gender-based abuse ensues. It's a clear case of hate-at-first-sight. Naturally, the two combatants will fall in love.

Debuting director Christophe Van Rompaey has a precocious sense of real life lived on a raggedy emotional edge, and of day-to-day uncertainties. He also has a script, of course, but much of what comes across so eloquently in this Flemish comedy of ill manners is wordless -- the way, for instance, that the 41-year-old incipient divorcee Matty has surrendered both psychically and cosmetically to the sad fact that her husband has left her for a younger woman. Or the obvious, nonverbal way that Matty's eldest daughter Vera (Anemone Valcke) defines adolescent attitude. Or the way that a roll of the eyes or curl of the mouth indicate the way Matty's self-image has gone south. Or the way she progresses from looking less like Agnes Moorehead and more like Diana Krall as Johnny ingratiates himself into her love-battered life.

"Moscow, Belgium," named for the town in which all this ensues, is an adult film, in the sense that it's about people who aren't sure what they want. Matty thinks she wants her husband back; Werner, the husband (Johan Heldenbergh), doesn't know if he really wants Matty or his new girlfriend and is making Matty miserable on two fronts. Johnny is an enigma -- he has had his own trouble and been the cause of most of it, but his devotion to Matty is genuine. We're a little unsure of his motivations (he too has been dumped), and so is Matty, because she's that creature rarely found in romantic comedies, a realist. What's refreshing about "Moscow, Belgium" is that Matty isn't melted, as she might be, by the attentions of relatively attractive younger man, but is quite blunt about using him to get back at her husband.

It's all very complicated. Like life, but far more entertaining.

What's elevating in all this erotic wheel-spinning and crossed-purposes is Johnny's persistence, and Matty's resolve against him. You side with him, you side with her, the whole thing can't be tidily wrapped up, but something relative to happiness is within their grasp.

Moscow, Belgium (102 minutes, in Dutch and Flemish with subtitles, at Landmark's E Street) is not rated. It contains vulgarity and adult content.

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