Friday, November 15, 2013

Previewing the Directory of World Cinema: Belgium: The Broken Circle Breakdown, as reviewed by Jeremi Szaniawski (and Updated 2/23/2014)

The Broken Circle Breakdown

Studio/Distributor: Menuet Producties, Topkapi Films/Kinepolis Film Distribution,
Wild Bunch, Tribeca Film
Director: Felix Van Groeningen
Producer: Dirk Impens
Screenwriter: Johan Heldenbergh, Mieke Dobbels, Carl Joos, Felix Van Groeningen
Cinematographer: Ruben Impens
Production Designer: Kurt Rigolle
Editor: Nico Leunen
Costumes: Ann Lauwerys
Genre: Drama
Cast: Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse
Duration: 111 minutes

Year: 2013


Tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens) and musician Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) fall in love at first sight; in spite of their differences, they are united by a love of music. Soon a daughter, Maybelle, springs forth from their union. Everything seems to be going well, but when Maybelle becomes seriously ill, the couple’s relationship is tested. Their worldviews, once harmonious, deteriorate as Elise’s religious leanings and idealism chafe against Didier’s militant atheism, with tragedy close at hand.


Felix Van Groeningen upholds the fascination with and will to emulate the American movie formula in Flemish cinema, yielding a tragic love story which retains a powerful grittiness in spite of its lush and sensuous representations. Finding his emotional substrate in American culture, the director adroitly reaches for the sentiments contained in bluegrass music, which makes for the most memorable moments of his latest film: who cannot respond in a somatic fashion to classic songs such as ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken?’ or ‘Wayfaring Stranger’, and its lineage of interpretations by great masters such as Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, or Bill Monroe? These fabulous songs disarm the viewer, beautifully integrated as they are into the fabric of the film, which is filled with passion and heartbreak, joy and longing—sad yet uplifting all at once—just as the music it references.

Undoubtedly, Van Groeningen shows the knack he displayed in his earlier efforts, namely to combine relatively unexpected elements into a powerful whole. Here, bluegrass music goes hand in hand with the story of Flemish characters—and the pathos of American melodrama with more typically Belgian down-to-earth-ness. Much as the Strobbes were unconditional adorers of Roy Orbinson in the director’s best film, The Misfortunates / De helaasheid der dingen (2009), Didier and Elise are lovers of music, but also lovers tout court: they pair their erotic passion and familial love with their melomania, at least at first.

While the film complicates the cliché story about the rise and fall of a relationship through a jumbled chronological structure (a narrative technique which has served many a successful American film), it is in the bodies and voices of imperfect (and therefore human) beings that it acquires its actual credibility and worth. This could not have been achieved without fully committed and talented actors, and both Baetens and Heldenbergh live up beautifully to the occasion: the latter (upon whose play the film is based) is rock solid as a rugged, rationalistic but romantic bohemian soul, while the former dazzles with her beauty and sensuality, sensitivity and vulnerability, in a truly unforgettable performance, which alternate moments of seduction with an earnest fallibility bordering on comedy. Not least among the accomplishments of the stars is that they sing the bluegrass standards themselves. The result is nothing short of extraordinary, and the soundtrack to the film has become a best-seller in Europe, and even made a remarkable entrance into the bluegrass charts in the US.

If the performances are first class, if the cinematography and camera movements are lush and impeccable overall, if the editing by Nico Leunen (the husband of Fien Troch, another young Belgian director to follow) is outstanding, the story does lose a little bit of steam at the beginning of the second half, and several of the last scenes show some less inspired directorial choices, including one near the film’s end, centered on Elise’s confusion, which plays a trick on the viewer, which is ill-fitting considering the earnest tone of the rest. But the weakest moments come in the film’s social, ideological critique dimension, when it critiques fundamentalism and American politics (the figure of George W. Bush is twice seen on TV in a film which takes place over the years of his infamous presidency). This could possibly have made The Broken Circle Breakdown stronger but instead does it a disservice for lack of depth, particularly when Didier rants, in the middle of a concert, against religion and how it slows down progress and medical research. This scene, which probably worked fine in the play and from which it clearly is borrowed too literally, taking place on the stage as it does, falls flat and is awkward here, although it triggers the film’s final act. But most clearly it goes to show that the desire to keep the core ideological debate of the play (atheism vs religion, rationalism vs idealism) was neither a very good, nor a very successful, idea.

For all these reasons, The Broken Circle Breakdown remains strongest when its author stays clear of didactic and literal discourse or binary oppositions, and remains true to the tone of the songs: simple, deep and earnest, beautiful and heartbreaking--stories of how happiness seems ever elusive, or how, once reached, its fleeting nature can be as unbearable as the most shattering loss; and how excess of love can be as damaging as a shortage of it. Gladly there is no shortage of beautiful moments in the film, including the final scene itself, in which the personal evolution of Elise, expressed in her tattoos which elegantly tell the story of her relationship with Didier throughout the film, reaches a truly electrifying moment where music and cinema come together one last time.

Belgian cinema never was more prominent at the Oscars than this year, with two nominations (the irresistible Ernest & Célestine, made by Belgians Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubier, is nominated for best animation feature), and never did it have a more likely candidate for best foreign film than The Broken Circle Breakdown. Not only because the film so skillfully embraces a beacon of American culture, but also because it manages to speak to the audience in a way that is at once accessible yet never simplistic—the essence of good entertainment. Regardless of whether the film goes on to win the statuette on March 2nd (something I would gladly put my money on), it is quite clear that Van Groeningen, who now spends a lot of his time in Los Angeles, with his flair for stylish cinema and unquestionable talent for working with actors, has made a place for himself on the international film scene (the director has already announced that his next project would star Matthias Schoenaerts, who was featured in Belgium’s previous Oscar nominated film, Bullhead (2011)). Let us hope that the circle of success, for the young director as well as the emulation he will foster within the greatest of small cinematic nations--and beyond--remains unbroken, at least for a little while longer.

Editor's Note: The Directory of World Cinema: Belgium, edited by Jeremi Szaniawski and Marcelline Block, will be available for purchase from Intellect Ltd. beginning in January 2014. In keeping with the recent emphasis of this site, The Broken Circle Breakdown also screened this past week as part of the 36th Starz Denver Film Festival.

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