Director: Felix van Groeningen
Cast: Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse
Duration: 112 mins
Language: Flemish and English with English subtitles
Rating: MA15+ – Strong themes and sex scenes
Release Date: 15 May, 2014
Critics verdict: Sad and stunning. Rush out and see this musical masterpiece.
Stephen A. Russell for Thelowdownunder says: “Bluegrass in its purest essence is the sound of bittersweet melancholy, and the heartbreakingly beautiful The Broken Circle Breakdown captures this sentiment perfectly. Belgium’s Flemish language entry into this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar category, it picked up a slew of awards, including at Cannes, Berlin and the Césars.
Directed by Felix van Groeningen (The Misfortunates, With Friends Like These) from a screenplay penned by his star, Johan Heldenbergh, a regular collaborator, who in turn adapted it from his stage play, it’s a painfully honest, non-linear capturing of a joyous love unravelling, somewhat in the vein of Blue Valentine.
Heldenbergh plays Didier, the lead singer of a Bluegrass band who is clearly obsessed with an admittedly romantic notion of America. Living out of a caravan in a rural spot outside a very Mid Western-style town, cowboy boots, shirts and hat present and correct, it leaves audiences used to this backdrop in American movies slightly discombobulated at the Flemish tongue punctuated with bluesy US English lyrics.
Something of a nomad, that all changes when the beautiful tattooed and free-spirited Elisse (Verle Baetens, Code 37, The White Queen) stumbles into his life and onto the bonnet of his big red ute. We know from the outset that all will not be rosy, as the pair attends the bedside of their seriously ill daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse).
In the first of many jump cuts backwards and forwards in this fraught timeline, we leap seven years previous to see Didier and Elisse first meeting. There’s an undeniable chemistry between the pair that crackles with a vibrancy so rarely captured this convincingly on film. Theirs is an easy sexuality that slips into the comfortable spaces shared between two lovers.
The first crack in this kind of bliss appears when Elisse announces she has, unexpectedly, fallen pregnant, and with Didier’s evident frustration at this unplanned occurrence. Shifting forward to their carefree family life with a joyous Maybelle, played with real gusto by the gorgeous Cattrysse, dispel fear momentarily before the dark shadow of cancer brings entropy into their happy lives. Elisse increasingly grasps hold of a desperate need for some kind of spiritual anchor, while the atheist rage inside of Didier is increasingly unleashed against the God he so regularly sings about.
The impeccable harmonies of Didier and his band, joined by a flourishing Elisse, is the magic on which this powerfully emotional film is strung, with music arranged by Bjorn Eriksson, who also has a small cameo. The constant temporal leaps are handled by van Groeningen with aplomb, and set against the gorgeously Malick-like cinematography of Ruben Impens, yet another regular collaborator. The evident closeness of the team seems to bleed through into the assured storytelling on show here.
The tight pacing slackens a tad in the final act, with a slight misstep in the handling of Didier’s disillusionment with America, rather clumsily tied to his daughter’s illness, and an slightly unnecessary step into the fantastical, but these are small quibbles with what is such an emotionally assured film from an exciting director.”
SBS says:“In The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgian writer-director Felix van Groeningen takes a similarly non-linear approach to a comparable boy-meets-girl/ boy-loses-girl tale. The result, with its Belgian bluegrass setting, is sufficiently distinct from its Australian predecessor to make a serious mark – it’s not hard to see why it has won prizes at Berlin and Tribeca film festivals.” (4 Stars)
The LA Times says: “Bluegrass music and films in the Flemish language are not usually thought of in the same breath, but “The Broken Circle Breakdown” is determined to marry them. The result, not surprisingly, is somewhat mixed. Belgium’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar, “Breakdown” gets the music right and has the benefit of strong acting, but its unapologetically melodramatic plot has a tendency to throw everything at you but the kitchen sink.”
The Telegraph says: “Forget your Ryan Goslings and your Michelle Williamses. This year, two of the most moving performances at the cinema come from — drumroll — um, Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh. The names may not stick yet, but their faces, and in fact whole bodies will, once you’ve seen The Broken Circle Breakdown: a tough, vital, electrifying film from Belgium, in which this duo go through bout after bout of love and heartbreak, until you’ve witnessed two lives change irrevocably.” (4 Stars)