By Carlos Aguilar | SydneysBuzz November 4, 2013 at 4:15PM
The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium's Submission for the Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. U.S. : Tribeca Films. International Sales Agent: The Match Factory
Told in a fragmented fashion through a series of disconnected memories and driven by soulful Bluegrass songs, Felix Van Groeningen’s latest feature tells the story of a doomed romance. Interestingly enough, The Broken Circle Breakdown introduces its characters at the breaking point in their love story before the dynamics of their relationship are clear. Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) have a young daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) who is battling leukemia. Departing from this heart-wrenching event, the film traces back their story together alternating between their joyous past and how they cope with the little girl’s death.
Elise uses her body as a canvas to exhibit her emotional battle scars in the form of tattoos. She has one for each man she has ever loved, or thought she had. But as soon as each ephemeral misconnection is over, she covers up the name with more ink and moves along to the next one; yet, she is now marked forever with a visible reminder of her past. On the other hand, Didier is infatuated with America as a mystical land of promise, but he is, ironically, also a man of facts who doesn’t believe in God or any religious establishment. This ideology contrasts with his deep love for Bluegrass music, which is essentially an outlet for sadness and longing to find comfort when logic can’t provide any.
Being a real life singer, Baetens brings a fantastic dose of honesty to her performance as Elise. Not only does she physically resemble Reese Witherspoon in the Johnny Cash-biopic Walk the Line, but she also truly surrenders herself to the character in all her complex facets. Throughout her ordeal she goes from a sexy, confident young woman in search for love to an amazing country singer, a loving mother, and lastly a hopeless soul unable to find peace or a reason to live. Equally authentic is her co-protagonist Johan Heldenbergh, whose connection to the story goes even deeper, given that he wrote the original play upon which the film is based. A devoted fan of Bill Monroe’s melancholic tunes, his character Didier can’t accept how life ripped his daughter away from him. His inability to empathize with Elise’s more spiritual coping mechanisms leads him to search for someone to blame, and inevitably the search breaks his spirit.
Musically the film is spot on. The song selection effectively heightens each profoundly moving sequence. Baetens delivers several tear-jerking performances that prove that although country music is unequivocally American, the feelings expressed through the songs are universal. Definitely the standout number out of all the memorable renditions in the soundtrack is the lovers’ duet, “If I Needed You”. Besides being the vehicle for Heldenbergh’s character to break down over his broken life circle, it summarizes the unlikely, yet undeniable love between these two flawed people.
Even if a supernatural element in the last part of the film seems a little out of place in relation to the pragmatism used throughout, it is a forgivable incident when considering the strengths of the piece overall. The Belgian writer/ director deliberately arranged the pieces of this deeply emotional puzzle to emphasize its effect. He juxtaposes the darkest moments in the couple’s relationship with their happiest encounters thus creating a comprehensive mosaic of their time together. Rarely does the editing become such a crucial character in the story as it does here. By leading the viewer between the past and present in such a beautifully orchestrated way the film reaches heights that could have not been achieved in a traditionally linear narrative.
Van Groeningen presents heaven and hell as the two sides of the same coin, a duality that puts to the test all promises of everlasting love. Such is the pain the characters experience that it is hard not to feel for them and their irremediable heartbreak. The Broken Circle Breakdown is a compelling work of visceral emotion, blessed with outstanding performances and delivered with an original stylistic vision. Who would have thought Country Love could be so powerful in Flemish and across the Atlantic.
Sales to date by The Match Factory include: France-Bodega Films, Hong Kong (China) - Edko Films Ltd, Iceland - Heimili Kvikmyndanna - Bio Paradis, Italy - Satine Film So. Korea - Sycomad, Norway - Film&Kino, Slovenia - Demiurg, Spain - Golem Distribución, Sweden - Maywin Films Ab, Switzerland - Filmcoopi Zurich Ag, Turkey - Kurmaca Film, United Kingdom - Studiocanal (Uk), Usa - Tribeca Enterprises