When Melissa Leo earned her Best Actress Oscar nomination for Frozen River, the Academy not only honored her powerful, subtle acting in the obscure indie film, but also implicitly saluted the body of work of an enormously talented veteran actress who’ll never be a cover girl.
Barbara Sarafian deserves Frozen River-style recognition for her affecting, deeply felt performance in Moscow, Belgium, a bittersweet romance from Belgium. With her ginger hair and hard features, Sarafian could even be a cinematic sibling to Leo. Sarafian plays Matty, a 41-year-old mother of three with an estranged husband and an unglamorous post office job. The film introduces her as she trudges behind a shopping cart at a Costco-like warehouse. Her dead-eyed, beaten down expression suggests that she’s emotionally lost in the supermarket.
Matty flares to life in short order when she backs her car into a massive yellow ice cream delivery truck in the parking lot. Soon she’s standing toe-to-toe swapping insults with the driver, Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet). After they cool down, Johnny gallantly insists on fixing the damage to her car. His persistence and obvious romantic interest gradually wears down Matty’s defenses. Her husband, an art teacher, has taken up with a sexually adventurous student half his age, and Matty blossoms — in her wary, prickly way — under Johnny’s attention. Matty’s choice isn’t easy, however: She’s 41, he’s 29. Plus, a messy divorce has left Johnny with deep hostility toward women, especially when he’s drunk. Meanwhile, Matty’s husband hints he wants to reconcile.
Directed by Christophe Van Rompaey, Moscow, Belgium looks kind of like English filmmaker Mike Leigh attempting to follow a Hollywood rom-com formula. (The title comes from the name of a working-class neighborhood in Ghent.) The film features requisite cute encounters, a few sex jokes and some heavy-handed metaphors. Johnny refers to Matty's habit of putting mustard on her food as a way of avoiding life, because the sharp flavor deadens everything else.
A darker thread runs through the film, which at times seems to be in tension with itself. As Johnny, Delnaet can turn on the charm, whether he's bonding with Matty’s son or crooning Nat King Cole songs in broken English at a karaoke bar. Johnny’s problems run too deep to be cured by the love of a good woman, however. Every heartwarming gesture of courtship is tempered by evidence that passion fades.
Moscow, Belgium features a strong supporting cast, including Anemone Valcke as Matty’s supermodel-gorgeous teenage daughter, but Sarafian commands the spotlight. She has two contrasting nude scenes — one in a bathtub, yelling at Johnny over the phone, the other shyly admiring herself in the mirror — that show how Matty evolves from defensive to self-accepting. Most amusingly, her crankiness is the stuff of legend. At one point, a perky co-worker bubbles, “A person is always stronger than they think,” and Sarafian shoots her a priceless you-gotta-be-shitting-me look. Like the Matty, Moscow, Belgium has trouble endorsing clichés, no matter how comforting they may be.