Realistic Romance

'Moscow, Belgium' succeeds by revealing the diversity of the everyday

There are two kinds of movies: those featuring Batman, and romantic comedies. Oh, and movies in which an action star tries his hand at comedy by playing the part of a caretaker to a group of small children.

Beyond that, people are loath to experiment too much with the cinematic form: Lead characters are super-pretty and they deserve good things, and secondary characters are either pudgy female friends or evil terrorists/yuppies who want to destroy America or shop a lot.

Still, once in a while, it's nice to see semi-naturalism in film, in spite of the fact that the area surrounding the theater where you see your films is teeming with full-on naturalism, so, really, why pay for it?

I guess because it feels like home, or tells us a little about ourselves. In Moscow, Belgium, Barbara Sarafian plays Matty, a 41-year-old mother who looks like a woman who is 41 years old and also a mother. Which is to say, she does not much resemble Meg Ryan or Jennifer Aniston, who I'm sure are lovely people, but who look more lovely than people-like.

The film starts with some haunting cinematography in a supermarket where Matty, with kids in tow, maneuvers through terrifyingly characterless aisles of boxed food. Cinematographer Ruben Impens (whom I've never heard of before) has a tremendous grasp of color and mood. He does one of my favorite, and most difficult, cinematic tricks, which is to construct entire scenes in a single hue: Orange hats and orangey skin sit in front of orange skies as two people have a very orange argument. He does the same thing with grays and browns, setting a depressing, midlife mood.

When Matty exits the Kafka-esque supermarket, she backs her car into a passing truck. A vicious argument ensues as truck-driver Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet) insults Matty, and Matty gives back pent-up frustration and anger. However, when Johnny realizes he's being a jerk, he tries to calm down, and later that day shows up at Matty's apartment to repair her car.

Yes, it's rather pat. They meet; they argue; they fall into naked belly-touching activities. Still, in spite of the obvious plot turn, Moscow, Belgium (originally titled Collision in Moscow in its Dutch-language release) rises, by virtue of its dogged realism, just above the frothy, foamy ocean of romantic comedy.

It's not that the story, about a 29-year-old trucker falling for the age-worn Matty, is all that original. It's rather that Matty does not get her groove back, or enter a dance competition, or walk triumphantly down the street while a Peter Gabriel song plays. Instead, she's continuously conflicted about this relationship, and is still in pain over the recent departure of her husband.

Of course, when the husband finds out that Matty has a young lover, he gets interested again, and etc. Yes, yes, it's been done before. But here, it's done in earthy colors, without glitz or a false sense of self-empowerment, positive change or growth.

When the characters do evince change, they fall back into their old ways. Matty is in no way some pure paragon of deserving goodness, and yet, partly because of that, she seems more deserving of love than the average shining blonde romantic lead. And Johnny the trucker starts off seeming like a jerk, then becomes tremendously kind and supplicating. Instead of this being a miraculous turnabout in his character, it turns out that, like most people who waver between anger and empathy, Johnny has serious emotional problems. In fact, he has a criminal record for battering his ex-wife.

So the simple need to root for some particular outcome (i.e., girl-gets-boy or husband-returns-to-family) is complicated by the complexities of people who seem flawed, and real, and really, really flawed. Matty is gruff and difficult, but not unsympathetic. And Johnny's past is damning, and not something he's put behind him, but still, even if his actions are repulsive, the performance by Delnaet makes his emotions seem familiar.

Moscow, Belgium won't be the best movie you'll see this year, and it doesn't aim to change the world or make a lot of money or destroy communism. What it does aim to do is demonstrate how watching ordinary people can be completely compelling, and also, how ordinary people don't have a standard form. Pushing stereotypes aside, Moscow, Belgium one-ups the Batmans and Harry Met Sallys of the world by tossing aside at least some of the artifice and revealing the diversity of the everyday.

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