Friday, December 19, 2008

Scenic Moscow, Belgium

Yes, they also have white trash in Belgium. The Moscou neighborhood of Ghent is not exactly Bruges. Originally deriving its name from Russian forces encamped there during the Napoleonic Wars, it is now a drab working-class suburb. At least that is the sense of place conveyed in Christophe van Rompaey’s Moscow, Belgium (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Obviously, Matty’s life stinks. She works in the post office. Making matters worse, Werner, her art teacher husband has moved in with a former student, but is trying to keep his options open should he later decide he wants to return to his family. Working a stultifying job and raising her rebellious teenaged daughter Vera and socially underdeveloped son Fien has taken a toll on her. However, when she accidentally backs into hot-headed Johnny’s truck, she catches the younger man’s eye (after he eventually exhausts his anger).

Matty does not want a truck-driving boy toy. She wants tomcatting Werner to come home, but agrees to meet Johnny on a date, which ends in the cab of his truck. Despite her intentions, Matty gets involved with the twenty-nine year-old with anger management difficulties. He has other issues too, like a nasty reaction to alcohol and a related criminal record.

There is some fine acting in Belgium, but it is exasperating to watch its characters make one glaringly bad choice after another. Should Johnny have a glass of wine to celebrate their relationship? Probably not. After a while, it is hard to maintain a rooting interest in their relationship, when each seems determined to sabotage it at every juncture. Still, there are some nice performances here, including Barbara Sarafian literally bearing it all as Matty. Anemone Valcke is also quite impressive as the daughter Vera, one of those annoying kids who are smarter than their bickering parents.

In a way, Belgium could be considered the anti-Babette’s Feast. Never before has so much unappetizing food been drowned in mustard and consumed on-screen. Surprisingly, the most stylish aspect of Belgium is its original soundtrack composed by Belgian jazz accordionist Tuur Florizoone. Mixing elements of jazz and French cafĂ© music, it might sound completely at odds with the mundane environment of Belgium, but is in fact quite effective at setting the film’s moods.

Like the neighborhood it is set in, Belgium is respectable and hard-working. Regrettably, despite a nice score and lead performance, it is not overwhelmingly memorable. It opens today in New York at the Cinema Village.