The Broken Circle Breakdown

May 17, 2014
Veerle Baetens & Johan Heldenbergh in 'The Broken Circle Breakdown' (2012)
Veerle Baetens & Johan Heldenbergh in 'The Broken Circle Breakdown' (2012)

Belgians have a reputation for pursuing individualism to the point of eccentricity. The Broken Circle Breakdown will confirm that reputation, but the film has a lot more to offer than mere quirkiness. Viewers who enter the cinema in one piece may emerge trying to reassemble the fragments, having experienced alternating extremes of exhilaration and tragedy, punctuated with committed performances of bluegrass music.

Felix van Groeningen has crafted a complex, moving story that offers up all its subtleties only upon later reflection. While watching the movie we are kept in a slightly disoriented state by the director’s predilection for jumping around in time, taking us from moments of ecstasy to the pits of despair. It is, as the title suggests, a circle, in which every instant of darkness gives way to the light, before wheeling back into darkness again.

We are taken by stages through a romance between Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), a hirsute Belgian bluegrass musician, and Elise (Veerle Baetens), a vivacious tattoo artist. The film begins with the couple learning that their five-year-old daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), has cancer. As the story progresses we witness the couple’s first meeting; their lovemaking, both playful and passionate; their joy in parenthood after a reluctant beginning, and their contrasting responses to the catastrophe that consumes their domestic idyll.

The fundamental differences between Didier and Elise only begin to reveal themselves in the second half of the film in response to their daughter’s ordeal. He is an atheist, unable to imagine any life beyond the here and now. She has a mystical bent, and is willing to believe in any fantasy that makes life tolerable. What seems at first a minor divergence in attitudes will eventually drive a wedge between the couple. Their personal pain will see Didier grow more outspoken and militant, while Elise becomes increasingly introverted.

The Broken Circle Breakdown has been criticised for the emphasis it gives to this confrontation between science and belief, as if such themes have no place in a love story, but they are crucial to the way we relate to these characters. Equally controversial is Van Groeningen’s habit of scrambling the chronology, but at no stage does this detract from our interest in the story, unlike say, Wally Pfister’s Transcendence, in which the beginning of the movie gives away the conclusion.

The truly irresistable feature of The Broken Circle Breakdown is the music. If we can forget that the action takes place in Ghent, not Nashville, the singing and playing feels completely authentic. Even those viewers with no special love for bluegrass or country & western, will be seduced by the beauty and spirit of these songs, and the joyous nature of the performances. For Didier this music is the wellspring of his life, and the source of his love of all things American. Maybelle, for instance, is named after Johnny Cash’s mother-in-law, Maybelle Carter.

Didier introduces Elise to bluegrass, and before long she has joined the band, revealing a pure, plaintive voice that would make Emmylou Harris sit up and take notice. A rendition of that old standard, The Wayfaring Stranger, is spine-tingling. When she sings: “I’m just a-going over Jordan, I’m just a-going over home”, it’s painfully clear she’s thinking of her daughter.

The song was also covered by Johnny Cash, on one of those late, great albums made in the face of his own mortality.

Van Groeningen has captured a basic truth about country music: despite its corny, relentlessly miserable view of life, the best of it touches the heart like few other genres. Think of Hank Williams, “the hillbilly Shakespeare”, who could turn a two minute ditty into a pageant of pain and stoic resistance to fate.

At each moment in this film when the story undergoes another shift in time, there is a song – not background music, but a wholehearted performance. Didier’s band, that remains ever-present but largely anonymous, acts as a Greek chorus for every dramatic occasion. The music both celebrates and heals.

Heldenbergh, who co-authored the play upon which the movie is based, does his own singing and banjo playing. Baetens is also convincing as a singer, not simply an actress impersonating a singer. The tattoos she wears tell us much about her character. When she first meets Didier she explains how she has used new tattoos to cover up the the names of three old boyfriends. She treats her body, and even her identity, as an evolving work of art that can be altered to help erase feelings of guilt and pain. She takes to the stage with ease because she views her own life as a kind of performance.

Didier, for all his cowboy affectations, is less able to escape into his imagination. He dwells morosely on the facts, becoming depressed and angry when he watches George W. Bush on TV denouncing stem cell experiments on “moral” grounds. His can-do fantasy of America is betrayed by an overbearing morality that holds back vital cancer research.

For Didier the “breakdown” takes place in public. Elise disintegrates even more drastically in private. There are truths in their relationship that seem unbearable but must be endured. It is earthly love, not Divine power, that will determine whether or not the circle is broken.

The Broken Circle Breakdown
Directed by Felix van Groeningen
Screenplay by Carl Joos & Felix van Groeningen, based on the play by Johan Heldenbergh & Mieke Dobbels
Starring Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse, Geert Van Rampelberg, Nils De Caster, Robbie Cleiren
Belgium/Netherlands, rated MA15+, 112 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 17 May, 2014.