Director: Felix Van Groeningen
Starring: Johan Heldenbergh, Veerle Baetens
The Broken Circle Breakdown is a story of fragments, one which actually feels more real told in bits and pieces that jump from one time period to another than it would if it it were told in straight-forward, linear fashion, because it plays out like memories, like snatches of things remembered floating around the mind. It's a heartbreaker of a movie that deals gracefully with issues that are often treated with a heavy hand (issues like religion and spirituality, grief, and the view of the United States from outside its borders) and is possessed of an incredible rawness of emotion and extraordinary tenderness. It's a beautiful picture, and the kind with true staying power.
Unfolding over the course of 7 years, The Broken Circle Breakdown traces the trajectory of the relationship between Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and Elise (Veerle Baetens), the former a bluegrass musician, the latter a tattoo artist with whom he falls in love and who comes to share his musical passion. Theirs is a whirlwind romance which quickly results in the conception of a daughter they name Maybelle, and for years they live happily together, balancing parenthood with making music. Then, when Maybelle is six, she's diagnosed with cancer, and the children's hospital becomes the center of the family's existence, with Maybelle going in and out as she undergoes treatment, and Didier and Elise trying to put on brave faces to try to keep Maybelle from losing hope. Elise is more successful than Didier in this respect, which is a cause of some tension between them, but when Maybelle succumbs to her illness within a year of being diagnosed, they both begin to fall apart.
While Elise can find at least a degree of peace through the notion that Maybelle has ascended to a higher plane of existence, or been reincarnated and lives on in another form, Didier has never had any particular belief in the spiritual, either before or after Maybelle's death. In one scene Maybelle, well into her illness but enjoying a brief respite at home, sees a bird fly into the window and die and Didier struggles to explain what's happened without explicitly telling his terminally ill daughter that he believes that once someone dies, they cease to exist in any form. After Maybelle's death, and as he and Elise begin to drift apart, his struggle only increases and his anger over the unfairness of his daughter's death begins to express itself as anger at virtually everyone and everything. He's angry at Elise for the beliefs she holds which he cannot share, he's angry at the United States government for legislating against the use of stem cells in medical research and setting the science back, he's angry at the way his friends and bandmates just sort of roll with it when Elise tries to shed her old life and reinvent herself, complete with new name. All he wants is to get through the tragedy with Elise, as a united team, but their shared experiences only seem to be driving them further away from each other.
Written and directed by Felix Van Groeningen, The Broken Circle Breakdown unfolds almost like a two character play, it delves so deeply and intimately into the relationship between Didier and Elise, and Heldenbergh and Baetens give it such a fully inhabited feel. The narrative's elliptical nature means that we only see Didier and Elise during their best of times and worst of times, but the filmmaker and performers work together to give a sense of what has come in between and how the relationship has evolved with the ebb and flow of time, as the two become familiar with each other's habits and moods, each overlooking some of the other's foibles while holding on to others as resentments that start to fester over time and the change in circumstance. It doesn't just give the story emotional depth, it also makes the frequent transitions between light and dark in the story easier. For example, after the incident with the bird, Didier expresses his frustration to Elise that birds haven't evolved to the point of being able to recognize windows. After Maybelle's death, Elise puts stickers of hawks on the windows, having heard that it will deter birds from flying into them, and Didier remarks that that doesn't really solve the problem, since the birds still haven't learned the actual lesson. When he says this, she gives him a look which suggests that this might be a joke, however, it quickly devolves into an argument as it becomes clear that this is the opening he needs to express his irritation at how she's grieving for Maybelle in a way that shuts him out because it doesn't accord with his own beliefs. In a less assured film, this quick shift in mood might seem jarring, but the way it plays out here makes it feel entirely natural.
What is a little jarring at first is the film's incorporation of music, bluegrass specifically, into the story. It's not just the mixture of Flemish dialogue with music sung in English, it's that it's become so customary at this point to see narratives from outside the United States which take a critical view of American politics and culture that it seems a little strange to see a non-English film where characters not only embrace a part of American culture, but express an adoration of America itself as well. Before Maybelle's death, Didier loves America (or, at least, the idea of America as expressed through bluegrass) and embraces the segment of American culture that bluegrass represents. While he loses faith in that after Maybelle's death, publicly railing against the religious extremism he sees in American politics and blames for science's inability to save his daughter, Elise goes in a different direction, rebranding herself with the name "Alabama." Van Groeningen makes all of this work, though, weaving it into the story so that it seems as natural as everything else in the end. When it was released The Broken Circle Breakdown received a number of awards and nominations (including an Academy Award nomination for Foreign Language Film, which it ultimately lost to Italy's submission, The Great Beauty), but the actors themselves received little notice for their performances. This is a shame since both Heldenbergh and Baetens are excellent and their heartfelt performances are the glue that holds the piece together. It took a few years for me to finally get to see The Broken Circle Breakdown (albeit not for lack of trying), but it was definitely worth the wait. This is a great movie.