The Broken Circle Breakdown
Belgium (2012) Dir. Felix Van Groeningen
At the turn of the millennium, bearded banjo player Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and heavily tattooed Elise (Veerle Baetens) may be polar opposites – he’s an atheist while she sports a cross – but that doesn’t stop them falling in love after bonding over their passion for bluegrass music. They have a daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) who develops cancer, forcing a clash of their conflicting religious and philosophical ideals.
An unusual and original concept, mixing bluegrass with religion and philosophy, but one deemed interesting enough for Belgium to chose this adaptation of the play by Johan Heldenbergh as its official entry for the Best Foreign Language film in the 2014 Oscars.
As crazy as the above marriage sounds Felix Van Groeningen gives us an intense and emotionally draining yet profound essay on the ups and downs of a relationship tested by the trials and tragedies of life. Told through a non-linear narrative that jumps freely between time frames, this is a tale that is built on and driven by raw emotion
Belgium is the last place one would imagine having a bluegrass scene but for Didier and his band, it is their life. Admittedly obsessed with Americana, Didier lives the hillbilly lifestyle with his bushy beard, unkempt hair and a caravan for his bedroom. Elise is a tattoo artist and a walking advertisement for her handiwork, with a similar, if not so fanatical, fondness for the US. They bond inexplicably and Elsie moves into the caravan with Didier until he discovers she is pregnant, forcing an upgrade to the old house Didier owns. Maybelle comes along and all is well until she reaches seven and contracts cancer.
While both parents do all they can for their child, a divergence in their viewpoints appears, especially when Maybelle’s mortality is threatened. One particular scene involves a bird that flies into the glass of the terranda and dies on impact. Maybelle picks the bird up then asks her father why it died and what will happen to it.
Here Didier realises that he can’t tell a seven year old how he doesn’t believe in the afterlife, nor does he feel Elise’s view is suitable either. Maybelle comes up with her own version that the bird has become a star in the sky. This clash of belief escalates once Maybelle passes away and the pair argues over the slightest thing, with one knee-jerk comment too many just waiting to ruin things for good.
The bluegrass element may seem like an ill-fitting plot device but it actually serves as a unique and inventive measuring stick for the various stages of the central relationship, using the songs as a means of furthering the narrative while depicting the growing tensions that develop. Elise joins the band as singer and guitarist, the early songs bristling with energy and joy, sung with commensurate verve and passion.
As the drama grows the songs become more melancholic and Didier is forced to stand behind his beau instead of next to her as she forces the lyrics from her mouth and her heart before an unwitting audience.
In presenting the clash of beliefs, Van Groeningen doesn’t put the audience in a position of picking sides, giving equal space to both ideals with no suggestion of right or wrong. As the cause is the illness of a child we have a somewhat divisive yet emotional anchor by which decorum is dictated. Both accept the other’s way of handling the situation with a respectful silence, adapting to whichever is apropos at the time.
However, something has to give and after Didier sees George W. Bush reject stem cell research, he launches a bitter and emotional tirade against both science and religion during a high profile gig, hammering in the final nail in the coffin of their relationship. This spirited speech is a dramatic centrepiece of the film and expresses a concern of the author yet doesn’t feel forced or didactic.
They may be an odd looking mismatched couple but Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens create a believable chemistry and subsequent loving pair through their committed and demanding performances. There is a raw honesty that permeates through their acting, most prominent in the scenes with young Nell Cattrysse as Maybelle, who also goes through plenty in her role, from having her head shaved to being taped up to hospital equipment.
Cattrysse herself steals the show in some of the more poignant scenes in which her illness takes its hold, giving lessons to more seasoned actors in the process. The trio feel like a genuine family while together and the essaying of the descent of the parents relationship in the aftermath of Maybelle’s passing is achingly painful to watch yet superbly conveyed.
If this sounds like a depressing prospect, the unconventional narrative creates some interesting juxtapositions between the light and the heavy. Keeping the story interesting is the way developments set later in the story are introduced with the explanation revealed afterwards, which is far a more effective than it sounds. This is no ordinary story and being told in this irregular manner is completely suited to the overall viewing experience, which unlikely to be forgotten easily; it may even turn you on to bluegrass music!
The Broken Circle Breakdown – a reference to a popular country/folk song Will The Circle Be Unbroken – is a powerful and effective drama that takes a stark and direct look at mortality and the effects on those left behind. Poignant, heart breaking and yet oddly heartfelt, this is how touching, unsentimental tragic tales should be told.