Saturday, January 17, 2009

Review: "Moscow, Belgium"

I love going into movies knowing nothing about them. Going in blind and being pleasantly surprised is always a nice feeling. Having been a professional film critic for five years now and a blogger for a little over two, that luxury is something I am rarely afforded anymore. When it is your job to be in the know you have to make some sacrifices, although I've never been one to avoid trailers and brief plot descriptions and things of that nature.

I had heard of Moscow, Belgium before I saw it. It popped up on a couple of 2008 top ten lists, but was never a major player and is still playing in VERY limited release. So when I sat down to watch the screener supplied to me by NeoClassics films, I honestly had no idea what I was about to watch. And I came away utterly charmed.

It's not every day you can say that about a romantic comedy, which in terms of American filmmaking tends to be right alongside the horror film as the absolute dregs of generic multiplex fodder. But first time feature director Christophe van Rompaey has done something very special with this film - he has created a romantic comedy that feels both magical and organic, and in a rare case from films of its genre - realistic.

Matty (Barbara Sarafian) is a harried, no nonsense 41 year old mom trying to balance raising three kids (one an adolescent, one who thinks she's an adolescent, and one who wishes he was), with a wishy washy husband who is going through a mid-life crisis and is living with a 22 year old former student. She has her plate full and has no time to mess around, so when she accidentally backs into a truck while pulling out of a parking space at the grocery store, it just adds another complication to her already busy life.

She gets more than she bargained for, however, when Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet), the handsome, 29 year old truck driver takes an interest in her. At first she resists his advances, but eventually her resolve melts, much to the disgust of her teenage daughter and the surprise of her husband, who still hasn't chosen between her and the 22 year old.

It is a tempestuous relationship of course. Johnny is a former alcoholic who has been to prison for beating his wife, and it causes concern with her husband and children. And it adds an element of danger to the otherwise beguiling narrative.

Van Rompaey constructs the film with a delightful sense of whimsy, accentuated by the Amelie-like score by Tuur Florizoone. Sarafian gives Matty a 'can-do' strength rarely seen in romantic comedy heroines, but the film really isn't your typical romantic comedy. It is a far more clever, intelligent affair, and it makes the film all the more endearing. Matty's nude scenes (and there are several), aren't sexy or provocative, they're earthy and real. She sees herself as a woman in decline, but it's a beautiful thing watching the light in her eyes return as she finds herself unexpectedly desirable to men again. There aren't that many roles out there like this for middle aged women, and Sarafian is a nice change to the vapid soullessness of many American romantic comedy protagonists.

Needless to say, I found myself utterly enchanted by the film. In many ways it reminded me of Once, but with a different focus, less music, and more comedy. It has the same grainy naturalism but with just enough magical realism to make it a winning comic confection.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MOSCOW, BELGIUM; Directed by Christophe van Rompaey; Stars Barbara Sarafian, Jurgen Delnaet, Johan Heldenbergh, Anemone Valcke; Not Rated; In Flemish and Dutch w/English subtitles

5 comments:

nick plowman said...

Sounds charming, which I am in the mood for too.

Sam Juliano said...

Now the timing of this is INCREDIBLE!!!!!!!!!!!

I saw this last night with Lucille and Broadway Bob at Manhattan's Cinema Village, and I was enchanted with it! Matt, I understand you received the screener, but i do think this a 2009 film, so I won't be tempted to make any revisions myself, not that I say it's quite that good to warrant it. But's it's very well-done, and as you say the director presents the film with "a delightful sense of whimsy! And the lead actress turns in a raw and strong performance.

And yes, you do indicate in your beautiful review (which I must say I hung with on every word, especially after seeing it last night and wanting to write my own soon) that the film was comedic.

The funniest moment for me was the dialogue when the two were walking, and he brought in Da Vinci and Mona Lisa. She answered: "Da Vinci was gay" and the Mona Lisa was not smiling! th elargely senior Citizen audience were howling, and rightly so!

Interesting comparison to ONCE there! makes a lot of sense.

Fabulous review!

Matthew Lucas said...

Thanks Sam! I'm glad you enjoyed the review. Although I do consider this to be a 2008 film, as according to Box Office Mojo it was released on Dec. 19, 2008.

Nicky, I think you would enjoy this. It's a sweet little time passer and is worth seeking out.

Sam Juliano said...

Yeah, Matt, you are quite right on the release date. Ah well, I'll leave things be, but I'll again admit i was like you taken with this.

Matthew Lucas said...

It's interesting to me that the screener copy I received had FYC ads printed on it, for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, stuff like that. Since it had a 2008 release date I didn't think much about it, but "Captain Abu Raed" had the same thing printed inside the cover. But I haven't been able to find any evidenced that it has ever played in the US outside of a festival. The website says that it will be released in February, so I'm going with that.

I started 2008 with "First Sunday." I think this is a much better way to start 2009.