Felix Van Groeningen’s film, The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012), is a well-crafted story about a Flanders bluegrass singer Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and his tattoo-covered lover Elise (Veerle Baetens) and how their relationship is challenged by the direst of circumstances. Expertly edited between differing times in the couple’s relationship, Van Groeningen has created an uplifting and at the same time heart-wrenching experience.
The beginning of TBCB opens in a Ghent hospital with the couple’s circle being broken, while they are receiving horrible news about their daughter, Maybelle. The story then cuts back to when the circle was first connected: the first time when they realized their love for one another. For the first hour, the film continuously cuts back and forth between the past (as the couple falls in love), the present (as their little girl grows more sick), and the future (circumstances they deal with afterwards). Several of these segments are then interlaced by musical performances by Didier, Elise, and Didier’s bluegrass band.
The film obtains its title and moral compass from the religious hymn Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, made popular by numerous bluegrass and country singers in the United States since the 1920s. The song became most famous with The Carter Family in the late ’20s and deals with the death, funeral, and mourning of the narrator’s mother. It is sung by Didier’s bluegrass group towards the conclusion of the film and after the couple has begun to deal with misery. The song shows how each person has dealt with sadness in a different way, yet both used their music to help lift their spirits. A quote from the song captures the movie’s essence:
We sang the songs of childhood
Hymns of faith that made us strong
Ones that Mother Maybelle taught us
Hear the Angels sing along
The first hour of the film is flawless in its storytelling and each scene is masterfully framed, detailing the couple’s angst and happiness, which are captured perfectly and the musical performances provide another layer to reinforce their connection to and emotions surrounding the events unraveling in their lives. However, just as Didier and Elise’s lives begin to unravel, so does the story.
Elise is established as a spirited individual who finds answers through religion. Didier, however, is anti-religious and places blame on individuals who delay the advances of science simply because it doesn’t coincide with their beliefs. Television appearances from US President George W. Bush, when he vetoed a stem-cell research bill only because it went against his religious beliefs, provides Didier with a scapegoat to blame for his daughter’s terminal illness. The film attempts to find additional meaning within its plot, as the characters try to find answers to the cause of their anguish. The two forces collide and, in the end, trip over one another as the film approaches the goal line.
Overall, this may have reached a little too far towards finding another subplot in its third act, but everything prior was flawless and quite moving. Both actors deserve a serious round of applause for their performances as well as the editor and director. Even with its shortcomings, you’ll be sure to see this on my ‘best of 2013’ list.
111 mins. In Flemish and English.