"Moscow, Belgium" is a coy title for a coy little film which actually takes place on the outskirts of a working-class neighborhood of Ghent, Belgium, named Moscou. The Russia reference is a grabber but meaningless. Maybe someday this film will be paired on a double bill with Wim Wenders's "Paris, Texas."
First-time Flemish director Christophe Van Rompaey has already absorbed a multitude of bad habits from Hollywood. His film is ostensibly about the anguish of the lovelorn, but he consistently cutesies up the proceedings. Matty (Barbara Sarafian) works in a humdrum job at the post office and has three oddball children, a sexually precocious teenager, Vera (Anemone Valcke); her younger sister, Fien (Sofia Ferri); and Peter (Julian Borsani), who looks like a poster boy for Geeks Anonymous. Matty's art teacher husband Werner (Johan Heldenbergh) has been AWOL since he took up with a nubile young student, leaving Matty to pine and fume.
She and stringy-haired loudmouth Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet) meet cute, in purest Hollywood style, when he backs his truck into her car in a supermarket parking lot. They holler at each other – a sure sign that love is waiting in the wings. Although Matty seems genuinely turned off to him at first, he wears her down by showing up at her place with apologies and an offer to fix her car.
A decade younger than the 40-ish Matty, Johnny comes across as a superannuated teenager. He's irrepressible in a way that is supposed to be irresistible but which I found annoying. When a jealous Werner does some digging into Johnny's past, he discovers the guy was a heavy drinker who was once jailed for beating up a girlfriend.
You might think these red flags would be enough to sour Matty on her stalker-like beau. She is not, after all, portrayed as a masochist. On the contrary, she's a survivor who works hard to keep her kids in line, and she still loves Werner (or at least the man he used to be). But Van Rompaey makes it easy for Matty to continue with Johnny, even after he throws a king-size, windshield-breaking tantrum in the streets, because he is portrayed as essentially harmless – a puppydog who needs to be brought in out of the rain.
All this folderol detracts from Sarafian's performance, which often threatens to become interesting before flattening into fluff. She's a capable performer who has the chameleonlike ability to seem incandescent one moment and haggard the next. She knows how to portray erotic longing and doesn't condescend to her character by turning her into a phony-baloney working-class heroine. Her Matty is a singular creation, which is remarkable given how generic this movie is. One can easily see it being remade by Hollywood, except why bother? Spiritually, if not geographically, it's already there.
Comparisons between this film and Mike Leigh's movies have been put forward – by critics who presumably haven't seen much of Leigh's work. In his best films, like the recent "Happy-Go-Lucky," Leigh uses the vagaries of his people as jumping off points for startling and revivifying revelations about them. His characters are always surprising us because he doesn't impose any limitations on them. They have the edge and variableness and unknowability of real-life personalities. This is not an easy achievement, and at times even Leigh falters in his movies and his people become mere eccentrics.
That's what the people in "Moscow, Belgium" quickly turn into. But because it's set in Belgium, it will get points for being "different." (This was also the case with last year's "In Bruges," a black comedy about hit men that used its Flemish setting as a distraction from the same old gangland clichés.)
Perhaps I am being too hard on "Moscow, Belgium," which at worst is inoffensive. But that's the point. When you're making a movie about people whose lives are torn up in this way, inoffensiveness is, well, offensive. Grade: B-.