The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012) Film Review, a movie directed by Felix Van Groeningen and starring Johan Heldenbergh, Veerle Baetens, Nell Cattrysse, Geert Van Rampelberg, Nils De Caster, Robbie Cleiren, Jan Bijvoet, Blanka Heirman, and George W. Bush.
The Broken Circle Breakdown told two distinct stories, from beginning to end, but did so in a non-linear fashion. In fact, both stories were told as contrasts between their divergent beginnings and endings.
The first told the story of Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse): her life before and after she was diagnosed with cancer; the events that brought her into the world, versus the impact of her death.
The second focused on the parents: their first meeting and courtship, contrasted against an estranged and tragic end.
Serving as the unifying constant throughout, was authentic, old fashioned American Blue Grass music.
Blue Grass singer/ banjoist Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), and tattoo proprietor/ enthusiast Elise (Veerle Baetens) alternately stumbled, deliriously, through a young romance, and suffered the hopes and despairs of Maybelle’s treatment. Later, they would struggle to reconcile the wild abandon from their first meeting, with the forces that took Marybelle away from them. Once the juxtaposed narrative became clear, it brought an immediacy to every scene. The understated earnestness of Johan and Veerle’s delivery allowed me to invest in every scene – regardless of place in the timeline. Nell Cattrysse’s performance could only be described as effortless.
In the story of Marybelle, key elements of the complete film were introduced. Didier’s love of Blue Grass; the close knit, familial nature of the band he and Elise were a part of; the stark contrasts in their life together, before, with and after Marybelle. Maybelle’s first steps were taken as the World Trade Center was being attacked, and there was something foreboding about George W. Bush staring back at us from his first press conference of 911, while Didier and Elise celebrated their daughter. Marybelle later confounded her father on the subject of mortality, when she witnesses a crow die.
The story of Didier and Elise managed to be more tragic than the story of Maybelle. Here, the meaning behind Elise’s tattoos, and her first exposure to – and induction into – Didier’s band were shown. After Marybelle’s death, however, elements from the first story took the second in something of a darker tangent. A crow confounded Didier, yet again; only it was at the heart of a spiritual crises by Elise. The specter of George W. Bush also returned, his opposition to Stem Cell research enraging Didier. Between Didier’s open contempt for religion, and Elise’s need for spiritual solace, their transition from singing folk songs to bar crowds, to singing estrangement songs to each other, onstage, seemed inevitable. Elise’s tattoos not only conveyed her thoughts, feelings and beliefs, they also covered mistakes she had committed to ink. By the time she made clear to Didier how her feelings for him had changed – through ink – the film had hit its emotional low point. Sadder still, from there, the film ended just above a lower point.
The pacing of the film’s chronological leaps allowed the viewer to occupy a middle ground, from which the course of the plot’s beginnings and endings could be followed simultaneously. Knowing the outcomes of past events, and reliving the history of future ones, granted viewers an omniscient vantage, of sorts. Ironically, this god-like view of simultaneous past and future only served to instill a sense of powerlessness. Much like a re-occurring act of nature, one could only watch the events of this film unfold as a matter of record, a foregone conclusion that should be both adored and accepted for its joyous and tragic turns.
I would say, then, to anyone who may have considered its musical interludes as out of place, or a form of gimmickry, that those interludes helped frame that middle ground. The point, of infusing a Flemish story of love and loss with American Blue Grass, was to demonstrate the universal nature of folk music. As such, both the music, and the stage performances were likely intended to share the same neutral space as the audience. Meant to be no more a party to the film’s highs and lows as a bird song would to a naturalist’s viewing of a wilderness drama. There were moments, however, when the music did interact with the story. The climactic performance of the second act served as a set up for a jarring rant against religion, by Didier, and Elise breaking things off. The band also performed two impromptu singing eulogies; clearly for effect, but too beautiful to dismiss.
The Broken Circle Breakdown may draw criticism for its interjection of a sociopolitical component. For what it may be worth, George W. Bush was more than a political football for the film makers to kick around as a plot point. He was a contributing character. He was even credited in the cast.
A dual narrative can be drawn from the very title of the film. In set piece music, the “breakdown” is an opportunity given for each player/ section to take the spotlight. Whether applied to Didier, Elise and Maybelle, or just Didier and Elise, or even the band, a perfectly harmonious circle had been broken (perhaps a circle of three interlocked rings). The breakdown could then apply to the either the juxtaposed narrative, taking turns informing the viewer of the unfolding stories; or to the musical interludes, giving viewers a point of focus while the film splits their attention in opposite directions.
The Broken Circle Breakdown was a depressing film to walk away from; but an enjoyable film to sit through. As an exercise in naturalist acting and film making (director Felix Van Groeningen having brought a documentary feel to it) there were enough genuine laughs, and honestly touching moments, to maintain a level joy, hope and optimism (well, at least throughout enough of the film to carry the viewer through to its tragic end). The soundtrack, however, left a sense of bitter sweet joy – independent of the film – that lingers. Walking away from a film like The Broken Circle Breakdown is a lot less depressing with the right music in your head, and the right songs in your heart.