Moscow, Belgium is one of those small films, like Sideways or Little Miss Sunshine, which will have great appeal. Because it was a directorial debut for Christophe Van Rompaey -- shot in 20 days, a study in human frailty and the inexplicable nature of human love without car chases or big names -- it was destined for small art houses. And then it was shown to a few reviewers. It won the Kieslowsky Award for Best Feature Film at the Denver Film Festival, the New Talent Award (Van Rompaey) at the Zurich Film Festival, three awards at Cannes, and now this "little film" comes to the States -- shortly at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, and recently at the Palm Springs Festival. I caught Christophe in Palm Springs with Barbara Sarafian, who plays Matty. I spoke with them about this "little film" which seems destined for big attention.
From Belgium (but, as Christophe explained to me: there are two sides -- the French and the Flemish), Moscow, Belgium was shot on the Flemish side, in Moscow, a workman's neighborhood where both the director and the lead, the quite wonderful Sarafian, grew up. The plotline: a forty-year-old working mother with three children is without her husband who has left her for a young woman, one of his students. She longs for his return and is tolerant of his visits, sure that eventually he'll tire of this affair and come home. When we meet Matty, she's tired, worn down, dragging down the aisle of a market on shopping day: hair unkempt, no makeup. She loads the groceries into the trunk of her car, she and the kids climb in, she pulls out and backs into a truck. The driver, a twenty-nine-year-old hothead named Johnny, comes at her screaming. The way she lays this guy out, she's an end-of-the-rope warrior -- tired of the fight, not willing to take one more crappy thing in her life. He's a wild one. She threatens to call the police. He's not keen on it because he's been in trouble more than a few times with his hothead temper. Later, he phones her. He's willing to fix the broken trunk of her car. He likes her, despite the age difference. And this is a crucial moment in her life, which is stalled, waiting for the errant husband to return. When he asks her out for a date, her teen daughter reminds her of this guy's age. But she's coming to a crisis. She agrees to a drink at the local pub. Dressed in her daughter's clothes, but still looking forty and tired, she meets Johnny. He propositions her, and they end up in the truck making wild love. The rest you'll have to see for yourself. We've had many films this last year about older men and younger women. This, an older woman and a young guy, is refreshing, beautifully acted, untraditional, unexpected, and worth looking for when it's released in this country, probably mid-February. I spoke to Christophe Van Rompaey by phone:
Clare Elfman: Did you develop an idea or buy an established script?
Christophe Van Rompaey: The script was written by a friend and producer, Jean-Claude Rijckeghem. We had been working on this idea for some time. They were making more accessible films for larger audiences. I was pitching an idea which was limited: too dark, a good mix of the accessible, but not too light. Profoundness that I like -- ideal combination.
CE: So there was not a great expectancy for this film?
CVR: When we were making it, no, there was not a great expectancy because, like you said, first-time director. We thought local cinemas. When it was a success, word of mouth, and selected at Cannes, it exploded.
CE: Why Moscow?
CVR: It was our neighborhood. I was born there, the writer was born there. We had a universal story. If I made a story elsewhere, there would be research. Logical that we should choose an environment we knew.
CE: And the casting?
CVR: It was really a little story with no spectacular car crashes or explosions. The challenge was to have something real -- real people. Looking for casting, we simply chose the person who was able to portray.
CE: Were you surprised with the reception of the film?
CVR: I think that people realized the profoundness. They were not being served a ready-made dinner. The characters were not all black and white. They were people with flaws, okay to make mistakes. You love them for who they are, no stereotypes. We were surprised at the reception -- young audience, seniors, very broad.
CE: And the shoot? Only 20 days?
CVR: I actually had been an assistant director for some time. You know parameters. This is how it's done. Not make it as a problem, just make it work. We had time to rehearse. We tried to foresee every probable discussion. We were just all working on the same film. The actors were amazing. It was just like a train that started and, in twenty days, we finished.
CE: Was the reception in different countries different?
CVR: In a new country, the first fifteen minutes you know the cultural differences. For example, Turkey --during the first ten minutes, all the men left the theater. There was a strong woman answering a man. They didn't like that. It was shown in the Hamptons. Johnny was shown as a wife-beater. Not the most relevant issue, not that it's not a serious issue in Belgium, but it wasn't the focus of the story, yet they thought we were glorifying a wife-beater.
CE: Barbara, how did you approach the part?
Barbara Sarafian: I was very grateful to read the first scenes. It played immediately as I read it. I like to play a strong person very vulnerable. I'm attracted to scenes that have two aspects and more.
CE: An older woman falling for a younger man...?
BS: Well, I question myself. Do I want to love him? He's not a very nice guy, but…the guy is welcome to bring something new into her life. Matty feels weak and tired, but she never gives up. You suspect that there is a bomb inside of her. In real life, when you have to deal with someone letting you down and betraying you, it's not always logical that you only get aggressive. Every time she sees her husband, she longs for him and it weakens her. She paralyzes, dogging eyes for him to come back...afraid to get aggressive, not to chase him away.
CE: That scene in the truck where she makes love to him -- what attracts her to this younger guy?
BS: There are layers between scenes. She warms to him. What makes him more attractive is that she's looking for a way out. He has that attractive character in theory -- she's only heard that from him. Even in the scene where he throws the beer, she doesn't care.
CE: You're playing an older woman who never smiles until Johnny makes love to you, then the smile changes you.
BS: It's always the thought that is the makeup, the inner self. I play a woman who doesn't smile, unattractive, but at the same time getting sympathy from the audience. For me, the basic story is that you have a character whose life is an emotional death. She meets another character in the same position -- not moving forward, waiting for something. They have to meet to be able to move on. All the rest is what these people are; they are living again...out of the impasse. No expectations, not important that maybe Johnny will get drunk again. It's the story of love, how love transcends the good and the bad -- with all its flaws -- positive and negative.
CE: Christophe, what's next?
CVR: It's moment to moment; I don't really have a next project lined up. Outside, it's all there. Inside, the struggle goes on. It was a delight talking to Christophe and Barbara. I love the film, and Buzzine will let you know when the film comes to your city. Moscow, Belgium -- ordinary people with their flaws, love with its complications, a woman who chooses between two flawed men.