Viewed at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival
The Broken Circle Breakdown (TBCB) is Dutch director Felix Van Groeningen’s cinematic ‘Blue Grass’ ballad of love, loss and life. After a chance encounter passion ignites like napalm between United States obsessed musician Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens). Without planning for it they get pregnant and bring the lovely Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) into the world. At age seven their Maybelle contracts leukaemia forcing Didier and Elise to help her face and fight the seemingly inevitable.
TBCB is tremendously spliced together by editor Nico ` to chart three simultaneous stories. The first is Didier and Elise coming together; the second is Didier, Elise and Maybelle battling through her disease and the final strand features the toll left on the parents of a child suffering from a terminal disease. The whole film is underscored by wonderful musical interludes from Didier’s Belgium ‘blue grass’ quintet practising/performing live together. It adds a tangible depth to the unfolding heartbreak. Van Groeningen does a sublime job of infusing initially completely antithetical music throughout the piece. If you weren’t initially a fan of the ‘blue grass’ genre you may just walk out feeling like you need to give your iTunes a post-viewing workout.
The performances from the entire chorus of actors is finely tuned. However it’s Baetens as Elise, the enigmatic tattoo artist cum angelic lead singer of the band that gets to run a veritable emotional gauntlet. From courting Didier, surprise motherhood, discovery of a hidden talent, and the catastrophic gamut of emotions one encounters watching their baby fighting a losing battle to cancer; it’s a tour de force. Heldenbergh’s performance as Didier features some really fluid contrasts. He’s a lumbering outsider, yearning for the music of a people on the other side of the world. He’s cantankerous and stubborn (and these moments is a source for a lot of the film’s humour) but at the same time there’s some disarming tenderness that comes when he’s playing or talking about his music and interacting with Maybelle.
The tragic trajectory of this family’s demise is so operatic and devastating that momentarily you can see the film-maker’s (co-writers Carl Joos and Van Groeningen) influence like the hands of a puppeteer operating the characters and thus the audience. There’s a heavy-handed excess in the concluding events, especially the machinations of Didier’s anti-American/Bush stance that briefly allowed this reviewer to raise up out of the raw emotional mess I’d been reduced to. Heldenbergh’s made to spit venom about the state of the United States as an outlet for his grief. It’s big, ‘chewing scenery’ acting as a sledge-hammer that undermines his otherwise topnotch performance.
The Broken Circle Breakdown is the cinematic equivalent of a great album that gets played at a funeral. Ultimately it’s a celebration; but the heartbreaking melancholy of love and life lost bleeds out of every note.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed: Felix Van Groeningen
Written by: Johan Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels (Play) & Carl Joos and Felix Van Groeningen (Adaptation)
Starring: Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse
Country of Origin: Belgium, The Netherlands