When Sean and I saw the trailer for The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012) some time back, we were fascinated by the idea of a Belgium film featuring blue grass. We wondered maybe that it was a Belgium film set in the American South, but no. It’s just that Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) is in love with blue grass music. Bill Monroe is his hero.
Director Felix van Groeningen’s film is about Didier and Elise (Veerle Baetens) who fall in love at first sight and, despite differences, begin to build a life together. They have a daughter Maybelle (“like Maybelle Carter”) played beautifully by Nell Cattrysse who manages both spunky girlhood and the deathly pallor of cancer. Maybelle’s condition tests an otherwise idyllic marriage, the differences surfacing in riveting explosions of rage and grief.
I described the film with a linearity it does not adopt. The transitions in and out of the present have an overall organic feel within the narrative, but are not easily anticipated (which is a praise, not a criticism). The story is easy to follow despite the time-shifts, or because of them. I can’t imagine The Broken Circle Breakdown told any other way. The simultaneity of lives being built and destroyed, the blossoming and the disintegration, is necessary to the complexity of the film and its story. Love and heartbreak are constant companions; you glimpse them in Didier’s look of adoration and fear when he watches Elise. Heldenbergh captures that sense of awe that love demands.
The Broken Circle Breakdown is a moving and heartbreaking portrayal of a life. Didier and Elise live in a small haven with farm/ranch animals, good friends (the band), and a sense of humor about their needs. But the world intrudes, and their faith suffers heavy blows. Didier’s love for America and its ideals is particularly painful to witness in its disillusionment.
But Didier still has his music, his blue grass band adding singer/actress Baetens’ Elise as a vocalist. They harmonize well, singing the songs in their original English. They even affect the word “Alabama” with a near-perfect southern inflection. The music is used judiciously, reminding us that the blue grass is born in context, not just performed on a stage for entertainment. The songs add to the narrative texture of the film, posing as transitions, but are primarily situated as storyteller. The music and its origins are at the heart of the film. Didier explains the presence of blue grass near the start of the film as he describes his passion for it to his lover Elise. There is beauty and there is suffering.
A lot of stories want to open at the beginning of a relationship so that you can fall in love with the characters as they fall in love. Elise and Didier’s cute meet is certainly charming, but having our first introduction in the hospital with their 6-7 year old child and years into relationship creates a startling investment as well. You are asked to appreciate the first blush and the commitment. And we need to love them at the hardest times, because that first rush of blood to the head is too easy, too common. The shift in sex scenes from their romance through the test of their commitment is moving. The shifts in body language are remarkable in the actors’ achievement. Heldenbergh has the intense gaze, but Baetens vibrates with emotion, even when she is completely still and looking away. I appreciate that the camera afforded them their bodies, the present-day impulse for innumerable close-ups resisted. Of course, the tall and lanky cowboy and the tattooed punk/rockabilly look deserve their screen time.
I never shook the strangeness of witnessing that, which to me is so essentially American, performed and set in Belgium. The foreign and the familiar cohere in a large conversation in the film as to why we have our mythologies; when they work and do harm. The idealism toward America shifts necessarily toward the benefits of living in Belgium. The music, though Didier knows it history, has a quality that is transcendent of borders, of nationalities.
A struggle in the film is in how to parse the hard surfaces of reality with its more extravagant acts of passion, etc. How and when to let go and allow the other the belief they need. The bird flying into the glass, the stars, the inked skin, The Broken Circle Breakdown establishes and explores conversations in images. You’ll note which images linger as the film whittles its way to the baring of bones. Too, we see the harsh realities (well-lit) take on the surreal in the sequences of disintegration—sequences that harbor a certain kind of joy. We’ve descended into night-scenes and rain, but the film closes in a day-lit room in white.
Didier’s lesson is one of letting go, of surrendering at key moments. Even so, The Broken Circle Breakdown settles into an acceptance and a celebration without turning up roses. But then, life is unresolved; the stories involve human beings. While we can write a synopsis in which the two protagonists are typed representational, the narrative is fairly muddied by human complexity nonetheless. The actors carry off self-possessed and memorable characters and they arrive at a decision of what they are able to abide in a relationship that is not only their own, but has their daughter ever in mind. Have those handkerchiefs ready. Listen and watch as they sing hymns amidst a disintegration of faith. The courage in the characters is marvelous. And, of course, there is the blue grass.
The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012); Director Felix van Groeningen; based on the play “Broken Circle Breakdown Featuring the Cover-Ups of Alabama” written by Johan Heldenbergh & Mieke Dobbels; adapted to screen by van Groeningen & Carl Joos, Charlotte Vandermeersch collaborating; Music by Bjorn Eriksson; Cinematography by Ruben Impens; Editing Nico Leunen; Produced by Dirk Impens, Arnold Helsenfeld, Laurette Schillings, Frans van Gestel, Rud Verzyck. Starring: Johan Heldenbergh (Didier/Monroe), Veerle Baetens (Elise/Alabama), & Nell Cattrysse (Maybelle).
Flemish w/ English subtitles; Running time: 111 minutes; No-rating, there is coarse language, sex, and nudity, plan accordingly.