Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Script Review: Aanrijding in Moscou (Moscow, Belgium)

Aanrijding in Moscou, written by Pat van Beirs and Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem, just won the first annual award for the best Flemish script from the Scenaristengilde (the Flemish screenwriter's guild). It's just the latest in a never-ending series of accolades for this very modest film (made on a tiny budget, intended for television), which has triumphed at film festivals all over the world, with Cannes being the most visible highlight. But this is the first time the script itself was singled out for an award. So let's take a look at what makes the screenplay so special!

Aanrijding in Moscou is a slice-of-life story mixed with a feelgood romantic comedy. The film has been praised for its sense of realism and excellent acting, which almost makes it feel like it's not scripted at all. Yet it is very much scripted, and what's revelatory about the screenplay is how tightly constructed the whole thing is, and how much symbolism and 'writerly gambits' the script contains. The way the structural construction is hidden (for the biggest part of the script, anyway) is simply masterful, and van Beirs and Van Rijckeghem would deserve the award just for pulling this off. But the script has a lot more qualities than that.


The script actually has a very classical three-act structure:

- Act One show Matty and Johnny meeting, and her finally agreeing to go on a date with him.

- Act Two charts the developing relationship, reveals more about the past of the characters (Johnny's violent tendencies and alcoholism), and also sees Matty's estranged husband Werner becoming interested in his wife again when he notices another man moving in on her. It ends with Johnny getting drunk and violent again when he meets his ex-wife and her new boyfriend just as Matty had definitely agreed to a steady relationship. She breaks things off with him.

- Act Three is all about the final choice Matty will have to make: does she take Werner back, does she forgive Johnny and give him a chance or will she stay alone and unloved?

When we look at the major structural points, we get the following:

Opening: Matty shopping at the supermarket with her kids, unhappy, zombie-like
Inciting incident: Matty collides with Johnny in the parking lot. They fight - she comes alive.
Plot Point One: Matty agrees to go on a date with Johnny.
Focus Point/'Pinch' 1: Matty and Johnny have sex in his truck
Midpoint: Werner reveals Johnny has been arrested in the past for beating up his ex-wife.
Focus Point/'Pinch' 2: the disastrous meal where Johnny and Werner first meet and start to quarrel - Matty finally throws food over the both of them.
Plot Point 2: Johnny, drunk, assaults his ex-wife and her lawyer boyfriend, and a disgusted Matty breaks off with him.
Crisis: Johnny serenades Matty with 'Mona Lisa' during the karaoke night - she rushes off in embarrasment.
Climax: Confrontation between Matty and Johnny - she lets go of her anger after punching him in the nose.
Resolution: Matty finally breaks things off with Werner and takes a chance on life with Johnny.

As I mentioned earlier, this structure is largely hidden from view (even though it's obvious once you start analyzing). The events all seem so natural, so true to life, that you're just swept along with the narrative which feels completely organic.

That's not to say everything is 100% perfect, though. Plot point 2 (the confrontation with Johnny's ex) is the one moment where everything feels 'written'. It's the first time Johnny drinks in a long time. He knows he shouldn't - but does so anyway, because he wants to celebrate. Fine, that's possible.

But when he staggers out of the bar, he immediately runs into his ex and her new beau, and picks a fight with them. And in the ensuing scuffle, Matty falls. On top of this, the police show up immediately (the same two policewomen who had intervened in the opening of the script). It all feels too contrived, and it's a narrative misstep which the script never completely recovers from.

It would have been more fitting if Johnny slowly but surely fell back into drinking again, and finally lashed out at Matty over a trivial incident (it would also have been more true to life). As things stand, an 'obviously fictional' incident (possible but not really plausible) intrudes on the reality of the rest of the storyline, and reminds us we're watching fiction rather than real life.

Similarly, we can wonder whether Vera would not tell her mother about her lesbianism before inviting her girlfriend over for an introductory dinner - especially since she was apparently worried enough about her mother's reaction not te mention her sexual orientaion before.


Though we've seen that Aanrijding in Moscou is actually tightly constructed, it comes across as a purely character-driven story. Which means that the characters are depicted very succesfully, with multiple layers, good backstory, and a sense that they exist beyond the borders of the script - and that their behaviour is motivated by their emotional and psychological make-up, not by the narrative needs of the script.

The cast is fairly small:

- Matty, 41, postal worker, deserted by husband, disappointed by life

- Johnny, 29, truck driver, romantic, Italophile, recovering alcoholic with violent tendencies, lives with his mother

- Werner, art teacher, Matty's husband, in a mid-life crisis, pretentious, 'trying to find himself', shacked up with a young student of his

These three are the most important characters in the script. We then get the secondary characters:

Vera: 17, Matty's oldest daughter, rebellious (especially towards her dad), outs herself as a lesbian

Fien: 10, youngest child of the family, precocious, obsessed by reading Tarot cards

Peter: 12, Matty's son, introverted, dreams of being a pilot (Peter's role is very small in the film)

Nicky: Matty's co-worker, a lusty woman in her thirties

Jacques: an elderly client of the post office, undertaker, fancies Matty.

Finally, there are tertiary characters who only show up for one scene or who have no important function in the story: an elderly woman at the post office, Nathalie (Johnny's ex) and Maxime (her lawyer boyfriend), the two female cops, and Iris, Vera's pseudo-deep girlfriend.

Matty and Johnny are obviously protagonist and antagonist, while Werner mainly functions as a secondary antagonist. He represents the easy but wrong choice for Matty to make. And he's also an extra threat/obstacle to the relationship between Matty and Johnny, who is needed in order for things not to be too easy for them.

Jacques is a very interesting minor character - more proof of how delicately constructed the film is. He always shows up at the post office with a bunch of mourning cards - sometimes just a few, sometimes a whole bunch - and explains about the person who died. The stories behind the cards always happen comment on Matty's state of mind: sometimes they match it perfectly, sometimes they are in contrast with it, sometimes they foreshadow problems... None of these incidents is chosen at random, or accidentally happens to fit in with the rest of the plot. This is screenwriting at a very high level.


Aanrijding in Moscou takes place in a very specific location (a working-class neighbourhood in the city of Ghent), and this is reflected in the dialogue. Everyone speaks the local dialect.

And this dialect is also in the script. Whereas instructors (myself included) generally warn against this, in this case it works, and even when there are a few words which are not readily understood by anyone not from Ghent, the stage directions in the script make it clear what is meant.

More importantly, every character in the script has their own voice. The writers have really succeeded in making them all come alive, and to find their specific register (Werner is slightly pretentious and uses a more refined language, Johnny uses Italian phrases regularly, Matty is the most cynical character in the script and gets the zingiest one-liners - which never sound sit-comlike but fit her character's reality perfectly).


Finally, let's look at the little symbolic details which pepper the script, and which indicate it's more than 'just' a fly-on-the-wall semi-documentary look at life and love in Ledeberg.

When Matty and Johnny first meet, the script specifies a gypsy is playing the violin (badly) at the parking lot, begging for money. But the sound of gypsy violins is a cliché of romance. No one really notices this detail, but subconsciously it primes the viewer (and the reader) for the romantic comedy-like meet cute which is about to take place. And by specifying the scratchiness of the playing, the idea is reinforced that the romance is off-kilter.

Secondly, Johnny gives some licking candy to Matty's kids - and it's decorated with the image of a white knight, an image repeated on Johnny's truck. Another intentional nod to the traditional image of the knight on the white horse coming to save the damsel in distress.

Another clever and subtle use of symbolism and even magic is daughter Fien's use of Tarot cards. No one pays real attention to her 'predictions', it's obviously the type of game a ten-year old kid could have fun with and even believe in, but never during the narrative are these cards treated in a heavy-handed way (Look! This Is Important!)
However - all her predictions come true... every reading she does is basically correct. So once again we get a thread of symbolism interwoven with scenes of extremely everyday reality (Fien always reads the cards when Matty is in the process of making dinner).

There's also the use of Mona Lisa as a symbol for Matty - she understands the picture's emotional meaning much better than Johnny, and when he serenades her with the Nat King Cole song of the same name, it's a realistic interpretation of a very movie-like moment. However, his serenade has an unintended effect - unlike the movies, she doesn't rush into his arms (yet) but she flees the bar in embarassment.

In short, the script provides all the elements for a succesful film. It's also an excellent example of the 'Think local, act global' adage: by firmly anchoring its narrative in an everyday reality, Aanrijding in Moscou transcends its geographical limitations and manages to touch the emotions of audiences all over the world. We can only concur that the script fully deserves the award, and we hope that the writers will be given the opportunity to show off their skills many more times in the future.

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