Bluegrass and Belgium are two words I would not have thought to put in the same sentence (or thought about at all, really) before The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium's entry in the Oscar race. Bluegrass is a crucial element in the story, from the sexy beginning to the wrenching end of a romance between a musician and the woman who becomes his wife and a singer in the group. But this exquisitely made, exceptionally moving film -- told in an elegant pattern of present-day scenes and flashbacks, full of music that suits every graceful shift in tone, directed with authority and sophistication by Felix van Groeningen -- comes with a horrendous, understandable marketing problem.
Before seeing it, I knew that it had won the Audience Award at the Berlin Film festival, and best screenplay and actress awards at Tribeca, but no official description gave me a sense of what the film was; now I see why. No smart marketing plan would admit what we learn in the very first scene: the couple, Didier and Elise, are in the hospital with their very sick 6-year-old daughter, Maybelle (named, naturally, after Maybelle Carter).
That isn't a spoiler. Maybelle's illness is the central
factor in the unraveling of Didier and Elise's relationship, and in our
visceral attachment to the characters. What is extraordinary, though, is the
way van Groeningen avoids the exploitative tropes of the sick-child melodrama, infusing
his film with raw honesty and the comfort of music instead.
Although there is nothing stage-bound about it, the film is
based on a play written by Johan Heldenbergh, the actor who plays Didier. Heldenbergh's
face has a haggard, lived-in attractiveness, and Didier seems the perfect
non-conformist partner for Elise (Veerle Baetens) who runs a tattoo shop and is apparently
her own best customer. Her body is covered in colorful tattoos, some of them re-done to cover up the names of old
Throughout, the film flashes back to their early days together,
then moves ahead to pick up the story surrounding Maybelle, then back again -- but not always with a simple forward
motion. At times, as in memory, out-of-sequence episodes are dropped in. The
effect is to create a richer, fuller sense of the relationship in all its moods
than a more straightforward -- and more melodramatic -- chronology might have.
This is also a story about family, and Maybelle is a laughing,
cheerful little girl, even in the hospital; it is heartbreaking to see her so
ill, and her parents in such pain. Yet The
Broken Circle Breakdown is not a depressing film because it is so exhilarating
in the way it captures characters and emotion. The music, including country
classics like "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," lifts the film beyond
its saddest moments and pumps up the already happy ones.
That music has already given the film, van Groeningen's
fourth, an afterlife. The actors do their own singing, and the bluegrass group
on screen has morphed into a real-life band doing a sold-out tour of Europe. The
soundtrack, just released in the U.S., is the best-selling soundtrack in Belgium's
history (whatever that means).
The film's unobtrusive
visual style is as graceful and fluid as its narrative. Most of Elise's vivid
tattoos are in pretty colors, but a gun with Didier's name is black.
The Broken Circle Breakdown is altogether an amazing little film, at once happy, sad and enthralling to watch.