Judge Michael Nazarewycz plays two kinds of music: blue AND grass.
Life is not generous.
I had a chance to watch Belgium's The Broken Circle Breakdown in the run-up to the Oscars. (It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, losing to Italy's The Great Beauty—a debate for another time.) As the closing credits rolled, I had the following thought: "I wish I had a chance to write about this film because I'll probably never watch it again." That latter sentiment was borne not of the film's quality, but of its devastating emotional impact; I was in no hurry to relive the tragic lives of these characters. Then fate stepped in and made me the offer to give it a full review.
Facts of the Case
Didier (Johan Heldenbergh, The Misfortunates) is a bluegrass musician. Elise (Veerle Baetens, Come As You Are) is a tattoo artist. Boy and Girl meet. Boy and Girl fall in love. Boy and Girl get married (sort of). Boy and Girl have a baby. Boy and Girl suffer a tragedy. Boy and Girl cope with the tragedy. The end. It's that simple.
And yet it's not that simple. This is the beautiful genius that is The Broken Circle Breakdown: it takes a simple core, adds layers of considerable drama, textures the story with heady themes, presents the lifecycle of the characters' relationship entirely out of order, and sets it all to a wonderful bluegrass soundtrack. And the whole thing is riveting from beginning to end.
The considerable drama—and this really isn't a spoiler if for no other reason than it occurs within the first two minutes of the film—is that Didier and Elise's daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse in her screen debut), is diagnosed with cancer. The girl is all of six years old and of course she's adorable (although not unbelievably so, and her cuteness is never exploited). It is heartbreaking. But as much as the child's illness is part of the story, it's also the line of demarcation in the relationship of the parents. Everything we bear witness to from that point forward in the lives of Didier and Elise is measured by what happened before the diagnosis and everything that happened after it.
This is why the non-linear telling of the story works so well. What we get is a mix of happiness and sorrow, of hope and despair. The story of the lives of Didier and Elise would be far less interesting if told in chronological order—happy, happy, happy, happy, OMG, sad, sad, sad, sad. By knowing in advance their path will lead them to this devastation makes their happier times bittersweet. By the end, which takes place "today," the time-jumping proves to be an effective storytelling device, not a gimmick.
Writer/director Felix Van Groeningen (The Misfortunates) smartly uses different hints throughout the film to help us understand when we are in time. Some clues, like footage of 9/11, are obvious. There is also one title card used (early) to give us a sense of the overall length of time in this story. And then other clues, like the growth of Didier's band in both number and popularity, are nicely subtle acknowledgments from the director that, hey, the viewer has a brain and can figure these things out.
Speaking of that band, a group of Belgians singing American bluegrass music might clang inside a thought bubble, but once the five (eventually seven) part band plays, they sound so very good, singing in perfect English. (They're so good, I bought the soundtrack after my first watch.) Bluegrass is also an interesting choice of musical style, as many of the songs' themes are religious. They aren't hymns, but they certainly carry more spiritual weight than the music of other genres. And the music is not only presented during scenes of live performances, the band will sing during tragic moments as a way of coping and expressing their feelings.
What also makes the use of bluegrass interesting is the dichotomy it offers. One of the main conflicts between Didier and Elise after Maybelle's diagnosis is a spiritual one. Didier, the lead singer of the band, is an atheist, while Elise, who eventually joins the band (which, by the way, has whatever the polar opposite effect of Yoko Ono is), believes in God. The difference of opinions is often contentious, but never preachy from either side.
The film, based on the stage play The Broken Circle Breakdown Featuring the Cover-Ups of Alabama as co-written by Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels, is simultaneously rich and efficient. It never wallows in melodrama, it never wastes time with unnecessary subplots, and even when it gets political (in a great sense of betrayal felt by Didier), it does so convincingly and without proselytizing.
Despite its weight—and believe me, it'll break your heart—The Broken Circle Breakdown is so very worth finding and watching.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is sharp throughout the film, doing fine justice to Ruben Impens' understated cinematography. On the audio side, the Dolby Digital 5.1 performance is important, and it performs well. Music plays a critical role in this film, with Didier's band offering interludes throughout the story. The sublime soundtrack is a joy to listen to. The lone extra is a four-minute interview with writer/director Van Groeningen which, given its short run time and number of film clips, offers little insight into the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Admittedly, and for all of its good, the timeline-jumping takes some getting used to. Despite the director's faith in our intellect, sometimes the subtle clues are a little too subtle. This causes the occasional "Wait, when am I?" moment. It doesn't last long, but it can compete for your attention.
Watching The Broken Circle Breakdown is like happening across a box of loose photographs. As you sift through them, you are transported to different points in time—some happy, some sad. When you get to the bottom of the box, you have a story full of joy and sorrow, nostalgia and regret, and yet you wish you had more pictures to sift through.
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