Love and the circle of life are put to the test in Felix Van Groeningen’s heartbreaking The Broken Circle Breakdown. But will the circle be unbroken?
A Man Of Constant Sorrow by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Wait one goddam cotton-pickin’ minute. A Belgian bluegrass movie an Oscar contender? Hell, yeah. And perhaps bluegrass music is the least likely contender to accompany Felix van Groenigen’s bittersweet The Broken Circle Breakdown with its fervent, southern god-fearin’ faith with all the prayin’ down at the river and the walkin’ to the gloryland. But as an accompaniment to Elise and Didier’s story as they pass from lightheartedness to heartbreak, it’s exquisite, giving voice on stage to their off-stage emotions. Based on the play written by leading man Johan Heldenbergh, emotions run deep in The Broken Circle Breakdown as the couple try to come to terms with the break in the circle of life that leaves them reeling into chaos.
Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) is a singer and banjo-player in a bluegrass band, who we discover via flashback, has recently met tattoo-artist Elise (Veerle Baetens). They have sex and hook up, living in a caravan on Didier’s run-down farm, with his horse Earl, until one day Elise discovers she’s pregnant. After months renovating their house, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) is born and it’s not long before she’s got her own pair of cowboy boots to hang up by the hearth or on their glass-roofed verandah. Elise joins their bluegrass group as a singer, but their family idyll is suddenly ripped apart when Elise and Didier discover their little girl has leukaemia. And with scientific research and a faithless pragmatism against them, the two parents have to learn how to repair the hole rent in the circle of their lives when Maybelle dies.
We’ve been here many times before – at the cinematic graveside of a dead son or daughter – from All About My Mother to Three Colours Blue to Rabbit Hole. It’s easy emotional pickings, but The Broken Circle Breakdown is a long way, not only from Kansas but also from tricksy manipulation. There’s an intense, palpable emotion to Elise and Didier’s grief, not only because of incredible performances from Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh, as well as a star turn from Nell Cattrysse as Maybelle, but also through its achronological narrative, piecing together the tattoo artist and the banjo player’s love story through jogged memories. And the spectrum of emotion is pitch perfect, the pain raw but not overplayed, the joy bubbling to the surface like an irrepressible county “Whoop!”
But perhaps most heartbreaking of all are the trio’s floundering attempts to come to terms with death. It starts with the desperate awkwardness of an atheistic father explaining to his daughter with leukaemia that the dead bird in her hands doesn’t go to a better place – just the dustbin. And just as Maybelle conjures her dead crow into a star to stop the pain and make sense of it all, Elise – scratching at the surface of her creed and understanding – demands her right to believe whatever she wants, even if that be that Maybelle comes to visit her in the shape of a crow. For Didier, it’s a break with his love for all things America – as George W vetoes stem cell research and the advances Elise, Didier and thousands of others desperately need. He turns his anger toward religion, railing against the sadistic, racist and manipulative Old Testament God at a concert. But Felix van Groeningen has other ideas. And as Elise’s spirit whispers into her husband’s ear (presumably to let her go) a gloryland opens that even Didier can’t help but hope for, bidding Elise to say hello to Marybelle if she see her.
There’s a tension, perhaps unintentionally, that maybe if Didier did believe (as much as Emily Watson’s Bess in Breaking The Waves) then perhaps everything might just be OK. But The Broken Circle Breakdown for all its bluegrass otherworldliness is emotional rather than spiritual. And the ultimate closure comes in the form of Elise’s final tattoo – a homage to their new beginnings as Alabama and Monroe and to their undying love renewed. While Elise’s tattooed body of erasures and touch-ups tells her story, it’s not the same for The Broken Circle Breakdown, which goes enthusiastically beyond straight, simple narrative. And with its achronological structure of remembered flashbacks, Felix van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown is a delicious riot of emotion, heightened to fever-pitch with its bluegrass accompaniment. It’s funny, tender and soul-wrenching in a way that only the blues can be.
The Broken Circle Breakdown is released on 18th October 2013 in the UK