Life for Matty (Barbara Sarafian) has seen better days. Her art professor husband Werner (Johan Heldenbergh) ran off with a 22-year-old former student almost six months back, and while he hasn't decided if he wants a divorce or not, he has the gall to complain to Matty that his mid-life crisis fling is "adventurous" when he picks up the younger kids, Fien (Sofia Ferri) and Peter (Julian Borsani), for the weekend. Their 17-year-old daughter Vera (Anemone Valcke) is old enough to do her own thing, such as take a lover she keeps hidden from both. Matty lives with her three kids in an ordinary apartment complex in the ordinarily gray Moscou suburb of Ghent, Belgium, and works as a clerk at the post office. And her general attitude is conveyed in Moscow, Belgium's very first shot, which shows Matty grimly moving through a grocery store as if trapped in a ring of soul-sucking hell.
And then, on top of all that, a truck driver named Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet) stops his rig right behind Matty's car when she tries to leave the grocery store; her trunk is dented and the pair proceed to yell at each other. And with that actual wreck director Christophe Van Rompaey begins his awkwardly moving movie, a romantic comedy predicated on the sort of clumsy-meets-cute collision that, were it a Hollywood flick, would then proceed along clichéd storylines that would ultimately end up with Matthew McConaughey and whoever realizing they were destined to be together.
Moscow is and isn't that movie. Yes, Matty and Johnny do eventually discover a mutual attraction. And, yes, the story does involve Matty coming to decide who she wants to be with, Werner or Johnny. But the journey there is neither expected or even pleasant, and these diversions from the rom-com norm push Moscow into something refreshing.
For starters, Matty isn't the typical rom-com woman. She is a resigned 41, and her straight-lipped grimace and sad eyes have become her face's default setting. Every day is a battle to endure, each day added to the ongoing tally she mentally keeps since Werner left. So when Johnny --more than 10 years her junior--enters her life, she initially views him as just another man-child looking to upend her already complicated existence.
What follows is less a courtship than a portrait of two people beaten down by life--and, in Johnny case's, he troublingly punched back--who begin to wonder if something other than mere survival might be possible. And credit Sarafian for holding your interest through the movie's shifting tones: Moscow sways from quiet romance to threatening drama rather abruptly, and Matty's reaction--a stoic stare, upending a plate in a lap--keeps you watching. Sarafian crawls into this woman's predicament so convincingly that you begin to hope for something better along with Matty, so much so that when she finally does smile, it feels like the sun finally coming out after a year of rain.