Moscow, Belgium begins with a car accident. Matty (Barbara Sarafian), a 41-year-old postal worker and mother of three, recently estranged from her art-professor lothario of a husband (Johan Heldenbergh), backs her modestly priced sedan into a tractor-trailer cab. Here, the film reveals more about Matty’s character in one long shot of her face than Paul Haggis could ever hope to with five minutes of “emotionally riveting” dialogue. Inside the cab is a hotheaded gynophobe in his late twenties named Johnny -- played to pitch perfection by relatively unknown actor Jurgen Delnaet -- who embodies a central contradiction: His tenderness towards Matty belies his firm conviction that all women are bloodsuckers, and one wonders at the way Delnaet captures this broken man’s multifaceted persona. The collision (the “Aanrijding” of the original Flemish title) is a clever way of encapsulating the clash of sensibilities that takes place between Matty and Johnny throughout the rest of the film — it becomes achingly apparent that the two will end up romantically involved.
Perhaps Moscow, Belgium is most intriguing in the way that it deals with such extraordinarily familiar subject matter. The film skates along the rim of the abyss of sentimentality, and every time you think it’s going to plummet headlong into the fairytale cesspool of Andy Tennent and his ilk, it rises above the inherent pitfalls of its storyline and offers a sincere portrait of middle-aged longing and youthful idealism. The subject matter lends itself so easily to melodrama and exploitation of the emotions, and by treating the material in a naturalistic and matter-of-fact manner, director Christophe Van Rompaey performs something of a minor miracle.
Rompaey, mainly known for his work directing the Belgian sitcom Team Spirit – de Serie (a lightly melodramatic television series about young, upwardly mobile professionals playing soccer) switches his focus in this film toward strong characters and subtle humor. Unfortunately for Mr. Rompaey — whose inventive staging and camera work are indicative of an undeniable talent — the story of Moscow, Belgium has been told before, and it’s been told in better ways.
Although the storyline is far too easy to anticipate, Moscow, Belgium is full of intriguing moments and astute observations, an original dramatic comedy about the pain of marital neglect and finding happiness through a begrudging rejection of normalcy. And while the dialogue feels a bit forced at times, Rompaey’s obvious love for the characters saves the film. By flirting so dangerously with overt sentimentality yet managing to successfully avoid it, he establishes himself as a confident and restrained director, showing us he’s perfectly capable of taking a well-worn story and infusing it with something new. Those who watch this film will surely be anxious to see what he does next.