(I Am) Love, Flemish Style

Two years running with Post Thanksgiving Stomach Disorder (thank you! I’ll be here all week), I’ve spent the day trying to forget my discomfort by submerging myself in DVDs. (For the record, I didn’t think I had even eaten that much; I think it’s the richness/acidity of the food and old age. Oh well, as long as I don’t have gout…)

I’ve never seen another movie by Christophe Van Rompaey, but Moscow, Belgium has turned me into a fan. (Why this particular translated title is somewhat mystifying; the original title would be closer to “Moscou Crash.” Since the only reference to the city in the movie is that it appears on a bus that operates in the suburb of Ghent where the protagonist Matty lives with her 3 beautiful children. It’s a confusing choice; at least spelling “Moscou” correctly would have made more sense. Subtitlers make weird decisions, something I ran into often at Criterion. But this digression’s gone on long enough.)

Like I Am Love, this movie chronicles a woman’s awakening from a middle-aged trance, perhaps, at least in this case, the natural counter to the “mid-life crisis” that Matty repeatedly and pointedly attributes to her husband; he’s shacked up with a 22-year-old student who texts him frequently. Men have crises; women anesthetize themselves, but keep on keepin’ on, dammit. Playing Matty, Barbara Sarafian is every bit as wonderful as Tilda Swinton in the other movie, but there are no palazzos and she doesn’t have Swinton’s leonine, majestic beauty; in fact, the first sequence shows Matty pushing a cart listlessly through a supermarket make-up free, ill-fitting clothes and months of dark outgrowth testifying to a woman who has stopped putting any kind of priority on her appearance; she’s surviving, and it looks like no fun at all.

The crash of the original title occurs very near the beginning, literally, in a parking lot. Naturally, there are predictable elements; you know immediately that Matty and the sexy but not particularly handsome trucker she crashes into, Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet), will hook up no matter how much they insult each other, just as you know, as soon as Johnny admits to a former booze problem, that he’ll fall off the wagon. But romances are predictable by nature; they have to be. And meanwhile, Sarafian and Delnaet are so honest onscreen and with each other that they never cease fascinating you.

As with the other movie, there’s an adolescent daughter, Vera, the delightful Anemone Valcke (how awesome is Anemone as first name?) who pushes her mother uncomfortably; it’s one of the best portraits of modern parent/teen relationships that I’ve seen on film. Matty is frank and unhypocritical with her daughter about pretty much everything, and when her annoying husband complains about Vera’s disdainful avoidance of him, she simply shrugs. What comes through crystal clear is Vera’s desire to protect her mother from schmucks, and also her fear that her mother, who seems to have set a pretty strong example, will never be strong when it comes to her own choices. Matty cooks food she doesn’t like because her son needs the nutrients, then covers it with mustard, which Johnny observes is so that she won’t really have to taste it. It’s one of the best insights into the unwitting martyrdom that so many women in unhappy marriages fall prey to, and it’s quite wonderful that neither Vera nor Johnny are OK with it.

The movie is framed wonderfully by sequences of Matty walking, first looking haggard and grave in the supermarket, but ending radiant and lovely, albeit with mud on her feet. As the movie progresses, the lighting (Ruben Impens) subtly becomes more tender, smiling much more kindly on Matty than she ever does on herself. The music by Tuur Florizoone is wonderful, alternating with a clean and melancholy piano and an accordion that sounds wonderfully old-fashioned and romantic without succumbing to cliche. It’s another movie that unapologetically and unsentimentally features a strong woman at its core, patiently waiting for her to emerge from the life sentence she has imposed on herself – and that she has finally decided to lift.

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