The familiar Christian hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” asks rhetorically whether we’ll see our loved ones in the afterlife. The implied answer is that of course we will: the family circle will not be broken. But that question is at the heart of “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” a bittersweet, rustic-colored drama about two lovers struggling with their beliefs after their daughter is stricken with cancer.
I hear your groans of “Ugh, kids with cancer,” and I sympathize. But it’s less maudlin than it sounds, more authentically moving and tender. These lovers, Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and Elise (Veerle Baetens), are impulsive, free-spirited Belgians, which is mildly interesting, and they perform bluegrass music, which is fascinating. Who knew there was an audience for bluegrass in Belgium? Didier plays banjo; they both sing (in beautiful harmony); and they’re accompanied by an ensemble of skilled musicians who love the distinctly American genre.
Their daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) — named after Maybelle Carter — is already in the hospital when the film begins, but the story hopscotches through time, jumping casually forward and backward as necessary to paint the entire picture of Elise and Didier’s relationship. When they first meet, Elise is a tattoo artist with a punk-rock background, and a devil-may-care attitude about her own body art. Change your mind about a tattoo? Eh, just cover it with a new one! Didier, who lives in a pleasantly run-down country farmhouse, doesn’t just love bluegrass; he loves America, or at least the promise of it. The two fall quickly and passionately in love, with Elise blending seamlessly into Didier’s life. There are joyful scenes of the two of them and their musician friends sitting around a bonfire, playing, singing, and laughing. When Maybelle comes along, she has a built-in family of bearded bluegrass uncles.
Things aren’t rosy forever, obviously (though one of the benefits of non-linear storytelling is that we can flit from happy moments to sad ones and back again instead of being stuck with whatever’s happening in the “present”). When the story turns tragic, Didier and Elise first cling to one another, then blame one another (that part is wearingly predictable), then discover fundamental differences in their philosophies. Didier becomes angrily atheistic, going so far as to issue an anti-God rant in the middle of a performance. (He’s mad at George W. Bush, too, for vetoing — in the name of morality — stem-cell research that might have helped Maybelle.) Elise retains her basic faith in God and the stabilizing belief that our dear departed wait for us in heaven, a belief that Didier has trouble abiding.
The director, Felix Van Groeningen, wisely makes Didier and Elise’s relationship — not their relationship with their daughter, and not their daughter’s illness — the center of the story. Johan Heldenbergh (who wrote the play it’s based on) and Veerle Baetens give raw, honest performances as the couple, neither one as toned or as beautiful as movie stars normally are, but both possessed of fine singing voices and rough, unadorned talent. Often Van Groeningen will pause just to luxuriate in a scene of Didier, Elise, and the band delivering a slice of bluegrass heaven.
Van Groeningen is on shakier ground when it comes to the American angle. Didier’s fondness for America isn’t established well enough to make it interesting when he grows disillusioned, nor is there enough of a connection between his grief and America’s actions to justify the disillusionment. A glimpse of 9/11 happening (the film is set in the early 2000s for some reason) lays the foundation for later commentary on religious extremism, but that commentary never comes. Unless all religion is to be considered “extremism,” but I don’t think that’s the movie’s intention.
In fact, while the film wrestles with thorny issues, it ultimately affirms spirituality — or, at the very least, the idea that spiritual beliefs can be beneficial, regardless of whether they’re provably true. Just as powerful, if less overt, is the film’s presentation of music as a healing, binding force.
B- (1 hr., 51 min.; Flemish with subtitles; )
Originally published at About.com.