Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.
Moscow, Belgium takes a woefully familiar formula and imbues it with some unique qualities. I guess every unhappy middle-aged woman, even one in a blue-collar Belgium suburb, is capable of being surprised by a younger man. What sets this one apart from other romantic comedies is its dour tone. Despite some real laughs, the world hardened these characters, and made them skeptical of happiness or warmth. Without strong performances or an appropriately wacky leading man, the movie could have easily become too morose for its own good.
Matty (Barbara Sarafian), who is about 40, has plenty to be unhappy about. Her artist husband Werner (Johan Heldenbergh) left her for a younger student, her job is not fulfilling, her kids are sullen, and she has no one with whom she can relate. In the parking lot of a grocery store, she accidentally bumps into a truck. It belongs to Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet), an excitable man with wild hair. The two curse one another, not really assigning blame. In the midst of their curses, the two surprise one another with angry insight. Matty’s brutal honesty touches Johnny, and he begins to court her in an annoyingly ingratiating manner. Johnny’s job takes him to Italy on a regular basis, and the Italian approach to seduction is clearly his inspiration. He shows up at Matty’s apartment, and pledges to fix her car. Later she reluctantly agrees to a date, and it ends up as a one night stand. Johnny is madly in love, yet Matty still holds a candle for her departed husband. Even worse, Johnny has an angry streak, and spent jail time for domestic violence. Now Matty must choose between what’s new and what’s comfortable.
With her considerable role, Sarafian proves to be a commanding presence. Her physicality is instrumental to her performance – she carries herself like an unsure tween when she’s unhappy, and relaxes her shoulders during fleeting moments of joy. With Johnny, Matty manages to unwind, and her inward smile is the movie’s most memorable moment. Heldenbergh, who plays Johnny as a crazed man with unkempt Viking-like hair, brings real pathos to his role. Johnny is only capable of expressing himself with grand romantic gestures – such scenes could have easily veered into parody, yet Heldernbergh and director Christophe Van Rompaey find just the right balance between pity and earnestness. The movie’s biggest surprise is its portrayal of Matty’s children. Like Goodbye Solo, the children of Moscow, Belgium are not annoyingly precocious clichés. They have only a passing interesting in their mother’s life; like many adolescents, they are maddeningly self-absorbed. Van Rompaney frames his scenes simply, with a palette somewhat drained of color, and gives the impression that these characters lead monotonous lives. The setting is a far cry from In Bruges. Moscou, a blue-collar suburb of Gent, is not a picturesque place. The drab surroundings help the movie maintain its plausibility. It is easy to understand how such a place could make Matty world-weary.
It is not surprising that a movie with modest goals achieves only modest success. Moscow, Belgium plods along at a pleasant pace, and never really ensnares the audience. Yet it is rare for such characters to be genuinely funny. In theaters right now, there are movies rife with incident and eye-popping visuals. Here is a movie that won’t capture your imagination, yet offers honest portrayals and even a few chuckles. Don’t be fooled by the terrible, terrible trailer – Moscow, Belgium sidesteps the ordinary, and delivers a surprisingly fun experience.
Here are other unconventional romances in which world-weary characters find love in unexpected places:
The Girl on the Bridge. Daniel Auteuil is one of the most reliable French actors, and with this unabashedly bold movie, he plays a driven madman in an understated way. He is Gabor, a professional knife-thrower who has a macabre way of looking for good-looking assistants. He finds beautiful women who consider suicide, saves their lives, and offers them a job. Shortly after Adele (Vanessa Paradis) leaps from a bridge, Gabor jumps into the Seine, and the two begin a successful professional relationship. Gabor firmly believes in luck, and even when Adele spins around a roulette wheel of death, he can throw knives with breathtaking accuracy. Because of the nature of their career, Gabor and Adele begin an unlikely relationship – they trust each other so completely that love is not far away. Director Patrice Leconte made the right choice when he shot his movie in black and white – there is something otherworldly and old-fashioned about knife throwing, and vibrant color would undercut the romantic, playful tone. These characters are not particular realistic. They speak with urgent and erudite language, and plot develops become increasingly absurd. The production, however, handles the emotions delicately, so even as the movie spins out of control, the audience has something it can easily grasp. Many movie romances are burdened the banal aspects of everyday life. Gabor and Adele, on the other hand, are in a wholly unique situation, one made special by beautiful camerawork.
The Best of Youth. Originally released as a miniseries for Italian television, this movie is definitely a hard sell. At roughly six hours, it tells nothing less than the story of modern Italy, with a dozen major characters. Two brothers, Nicola and Matteo, are the movie’s core. The former becomes a doctor, goes to Florence for the flood relief effort, and meets the stunning Giulia, only to lose her a radical political movement. Matteo is a deeply empathetic literature student who views academia with skepticism, and decides to become a homicide detective. Their lives, as well as those of their family and friends, intersect over decades, and the story becomes as messy as real life. Everything about this movie, from its stunning locations to its tender dialog, is of superlative quality. Rarely have I watched a movie and found it so unexpectedly moving. Like the best shows television offers, The Best of Youth has time to really observe their characters. It is easy to identify with them – the audience shares their triumphs and defeats. Nicola in particular is the kind of man who is easy to watch – he’s intelligent and loyal, carefree and full of life. Happiness consistently eludes him, so when he finds love in the most unlikely place, tears are not far away. As noted earlier, the movie is indeed six hours long. It was originally shown in two three-hour parts, with separate admissions. The DVD experience is less daunting; there are clear points to stop at each hour, so you can watch it at a leisurely pace. Even with such flexibility, you may not want to wait – I watched the movie in one six-hour stretch, and thought about it long afterward.
Yes. Sally Potter is not afraid to make bizarre movies. Orlando focuses on an English woman with eternal youth, one who eventually decides to switch gender. The Tango Lesson stars Potter as passionate filmmaker who promises to put a talented tango instructor (playing himself) in her next movie. It should come as no surprise that Yes is similarly bold. She (Joan Allen) is the American wife of a British diplomat. He (Simon Abkarian) is a Lebanese chef. She and He meet, and form a deeply erotic relationship. They playfully seduce one another, are surely aware of their age, and relish their stolen time together. Soon She and He find themselves in Cuba, visiting She’s dying Marxist aunt. Movies are rarely allowed to be this erotic or political, and I cannot help but be thankful for Potter’s unusual vision. Oh, and I haven’t touched upon the movie’s riskiest choice: all the characters, even the uneducated kitchen workers, speak in iambic pentameter. They do not perform with the rigid formality of a high school Shakespeare production – the actors are uniformly talented, and are comfortable with poetic speech. Despite such syllabic constraints, language flows easily. Shirley Henderson, as She’s maid, delivers a lovely soliloquy that highlights the importance of “yes.” I have friends who watched Yes and felt its approach alienating. Ok, perhaps not all aspects of the movie work, and it’s sometimes pretentious. Tell you what though – I’ll always prefer an ambitious failure over a successful formula.
That’s for for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I stretch my way to catharsis.