The Broken Circle Breakdown
Felix van Groeningen’s fourth feature film is a musical mix of melodrama and kink, starring Johan Heldenbergh (who also wrote the play that The Broken Circle Breakdown is based on) and Veerle Baetens. Heldenbergh is Didier, a reclusive bluegrass musician who loves American folk culture. His love interest is the outgoing tattoo artist Elise, and when the two meet, it’s love at first sight. They discuss tattoos, America and things that mean something to them, and before you know it, they’re playing house in Didier’s truck.
What follows is a beautiful love story interlaced with bluegrass music courtesy of the Broken Circle Breakdown band. He talks, she listens. He’s a romantic atheist, she is a religious realist. They have different personalities, but as the old saying goes, love conquers all. Together, they bear an unexpected fruit of love, a girl they call Maybelle (after legendary country musician Maybelle Carter). All seems perfect, but when Maybelle falls seriously ill, the line dividing their different worlds becomes wider, and tension builds up between the two. Maybelle has terminal cancer and the chemo isn’t working anymore. With stem cell treatment as the last option, her parents are desperate. They put on a brave face for Maybelle, sing her songs and watch her favourite Mega Mindy together, but inside they know that with George Bush vetoing stem cell treatment in America, it will take years till it is available. Didier and Elise are suddenly thrown into the deep end of the news, and when Maybelle passes away, their life begins to fall apart.
Groeningen boldly intercuts the past with the present, and these clever flashbacks and flash-forwards seem surprisingly natural. A thought is in the present, a memory in the past. Bluegrass music floats effortlessly in the background as the two spend days mourning the loss of their daughter. Denial, aggression and finally acceptance are shown as different phases, all bound together by the power of song.
Heldenbergh is perfect as the withdrawn talker, the bluegrass guru and distraught husband and father. Baetens is wonderful as the free-spirited, extrovert wife and mother. Cinematographer Ruben Impens helps create the perfect environment through his use of camera and light. The past and present are ingeniously portrayed;for example, a lot of Didier and Elise’s past was spent in the caravan and the truck, to their express wedding, to how they move into their house with the birth of Maybelle, and not to forget, the “terranda.”
The Broken Circle Breakdown is Groeningen’s fourth feature and it fits perfectly in the heartbreak genre. Expect some heart-wrenching moments when Maybelle holds a dead bird in her hands or when Elise finally breaks down after the funeral. Brilliantly placed music and humour save this film from becoming sentimental, and the wonderful screenwriters Carl Joos and Groeningen walk us slowly but surely through the couple’s diminishing love story. The result is a liberating story of love, loss and redemption.