Moscow, Belgium begins and ends with close-ups of Matty (Barbara Sarafian), a 41-year-old mother of three who, like Carl, could use an escape from a life that isn’t everything she’d hoped. As the film opens, first-time feature director Christophe Van Rompaey zooms his lens right on Matty’s prematurely haggard face as she walks, zombie-like, through a supermarket. Equally abstracted when she gets in her car, Matty backs up into a semi driven by the unpleasant, tank-top-wearing Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet). He bitches that he knows “women like you” and that it must be that time of the month. Matty unleashes a vicious analysis of Johnny right back. Romance is sure to follow.
This is no romantic comedy, however, and writers Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem and Pat van Beirs certainly don’t make it obvious that Matty will ever have any interest in Johnny, who is only 29, clearly has anger issues, and is not very attractive on top of it. But her dressing-down impresses him, and he begins to court her relentlessly. Factor in Matty’s possibly permanent separation from her husband, Werner (Johan Heldenbergh), an art teacher who’s having an affair with one of his students, and, well, Johnny may not be ideal, but his attention is just the boost she needs. Soon enough, his truck cabin’s a-rockin’.
“There’s too much sadness in the world,” a customer tells Matty at her dreary post-office job in the working-class neighborhood of Moscou in Ghent. But for all its scripted dreariness, Moscow, Belgium plays like more of a comedy than a downer. The excellent Sarafian, who like a Belgian Frances McDormand can look homely in one scene and lovely in the next, makes Matty a fairly entertaining crank, sarcastically snipping at everyone from her 16-year-old daughter, Vera (Anemone Valcke), to her Hollywood-standard offbeat coworker to the two men in her life, no matter how nice they’re treating her. Matty and those who know of her dalliance—which she first pursues “to piss off my husband”—pretty much treat it as a joke.
When Werner considers making amends and Matty finds out about Johnny’s checkered past, however, the lark and its consequences turn more serious. A scene in which Johnny lets his cheery new-boyfriend façade slip is terrifically tense and sobering, as is a dinner where Werner and Johnny nearly crack each other’s skulls and Vera brings home an unexpected guest. The film’s portrait of a middle-class family and its daily clashes, both major and minor, is spot-on.
Moscow, Belgium’s climax is another story, however. Just when you expect the plot to go one way, it whiplashes to a different ending—and though surprise is often a good thing in a movie, here the script just doesn’t make much sense. But then there’s Matty’s close-up again, this time her face beaming. The film may not make you believe in Matty’s choice, but Sarafian certainly convinces you that her character is finally happy.