The Broken Circle Breakdown
(Drama, Belgium. Running time: 100 mins)
Often referred to as the Mexico of Europe, the trilingual, multi-national Belgium has moved well beyond its “chocolate, mussels, waffles & beer” milieu in recent decades. These days, it’s a fascinating place full of palpable cultural idiosyncrasies – which are also strongly reflected in the country’s cinematic output. Equal parts family drama and snapshot at the music-as-lifestyle phenomenon, The Broken Circle Breakdown can be safely considered a directorial triumph for Felix van Groeningen.
Set in the old Flemish city of Ghent, the film develops around the initially idyllic, then difficult union of Didier (Jonah Heidenbergh), a singer in a bluegrass band and a textbook DIY man who lives in a dilapidated old bus on the outskirts of town and dreams of American prairies, and Elise (Veerle Baatens), a straight-talking, practical and realistic tattoo artist. For a time, they are a match made in heaven, getting married, joining their talents and duetting like Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris as Didier’s cohorts crank out superb traditional bluegrass: the purest original form of country music, full of joy, sorrow and lonesomeness.
With the emotional rollercoaster eventually revving up, things begin to put a strain on Didier and Elise’s marriage — none as heartbreaking as the decline of their little daughter Maybelle, who suffers from leukaemia. In addition, the spouses begin to clash over their differing convictions: Didier is a profound atheist with a strong belief in medical research while Elise doesn’t hide her faith in God. The standoff reaches an apex in a telling scene where Didier unleashes a raging anti-organised religion tirade in the middle of a sold-out city hall performance; it’s so intense that it seems burning rain might fall at any second.
As eclectic as the country it’s set in, The Broken Circle Breakdown is a freewheeling, occasionally heartrending experience that nevertheless succeeds in making the viewer believe that genuine love and affection can withstand the harshest trials. Accompanied by a beautiful soundtrack and full of European Americana spirit, this is a powerful, if sad, film about love and death.
Words by Denis Semchenko.
The Broken Circle Breakdown is out now.