The Venn diagrams of films about bluegrass music and films about children with cancer overlap in The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium’s Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film. Grafting a music-based love story onto what would typically be a disease movie-of-the-week may not sound like a good idea, but director Felix Van Groeninger and his strong cast make this emotional film mostly sing.
The story toggles back and forth in time, so tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens) and banjo player Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) meet cute in her parlor an hour into the film. He waxes eloquently here about bluegrass music, and obviously, he is effective, as earlier scenes indicate the couple shares an outdoor shower as comfortably as they do the stage. The film’s narrative strategy also alternates the saccharine with salty and savory, so scenes of Elise and Didier anxiously reassuring their sick daughter in the hospital are juxtaposed with scenes of the couple having passionate sex.
Elise, who sings with Didier’s band, really has a feel for the blues, especially given the grief she has over her terminally ill daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse). When she sings Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You,” it is a powerful, expressive moment. Music in the film is particularly well used in moments like these.
However, The Broken Circle Breakdown teeters on the brink of cloying as a scene in which Maybelle asks her father about a dead bird is a bit portentous; it really is a harbinger of bad things to come. The subject of dead birds is raised again during a later emotional exchange between husband and wife.
The film’s narrative often circles back to show episodes from a different point of view and different place in time. The problem, however, is that around the midpoint, The Broken Circle Breakdown goes off in one particular direction and plucks the same note over and over. Didier rails about stem-cell research while Elise reacts in her own heartfelt way to her daughter’s condition.
Making all the disparate elements come together in The Broken Circle Breakdown is a tricky balancing act, and the film succeeds best in its engaging first half. Nevertheless, Baetens gives an incredible performance. She is often charming and sometimes heartbreaking. Her singing is top-notch, too. She, along with the terrific music and luminous cinematography, help this uneven film over its many rough patches.
The Broken Circle Breakdown opens today at the Ritz Bourse.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.