Review: The Broken Circle Breakdown (2013)

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Directed by – Felix Van Groeningen
Written by – Carl Joos & Felix Van Groeningen
Based on The Broken Circle Breakdown Featuring the Cover-Ups of Alabama, a play by Mieke Dobbels & Johan Heldenbergh
Starring – Johan Heldenbergh, Veerle Baetens, Nell Cattrysse, Nils De Caster, Robbie Cleiren, Bert Huysentruyt & Geert Van Rampelberg

The transition from stage to screen is often a difficult one but Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen’s (The Misfortunates, Steve + Sky) adaptation of The Broken Circle Breakdown is a pretty accomplished piece of cinema, albeit one that sometimes falls victim to your typical art-house quirks. Co-written by and starring Johan Heldenbergh (The Misfortunates, Moscow, Belgium), the film has received much praise since its initial release and is now a serious contender for Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Academy Awards.

Spanning a seven-year plus period, from the turn of the Millennium to a date in the late 2000s, the film follows the lives of Didier (Heldenbergh) and Elise (Baetens; The White Queen, Code 37), a couple who play together in a small bluegrass band. Told in the form of a broken narrative, the film covers everything from their first meeting to the birth of their daughter Maybelle (Cattrysse) and, ultimately, the final breakdown of their fraught relationship. Throughout its 110 minute runtime (which feels longer, but only because the scope of the film’s focus is so broad), we get an intimate look at the couple’s numerous ups and downs, set against a soundtrack of some beautiful bluegrass melodies and a political message that is well-meaning but unbearably heavy-handed.

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From the offset this is a film that has a clear purpose and it’ll be damned if anyone or anything is going to be allowed to get in the way. Edited in such a way that the story often feels fractured, perhaps even unfocussed, the film sets out to explore life in all of its purposeless beauty with a drama that is sometimes hopeful but more often harrowing. We are invited to watch as these two very different people become one couple and one family, only for the entire thing to be torn apart by needless but inevitable tragedy, and the affect can be quite distressing. The film is structured in such a way (without giving too much away) that each moment of sorrow is usually followed by a moment of joy, though as the film progresses you begin to realise that all of the happier, more enjoyable moments are in the past while the sorrow is very much in the here and now.

What we have then is a film that is, despite those gorgeous melodies and those wonderful moments of happiness early on, almost overflowing with pessimism. There is the occasional spot of light relief but for the most part, The Broken Circle Breakdown is a film that tries – relatively successfully, I might add – to manipulate and wring every bitter, maudlin emotion out of its audience while at the same time offering them just a modicum of hope to keep them going. The initial story, which takes up the first 45 minutes or so, offers a glimmer of cheerfulness every now and then before reaching an abrupt conclusion that hits you like a freight train. It’s manipulative – occasionally bordering on grief porn – but it’s surprisingly well-handled, and it opens the rest of the film up to some truly gut-wrenching drama.

It works first and foremost as a result of its three focal performances, all of which are nuanced but assured. Heldenbergh – though he appears to be playing a version of himself – is a fantastic lead. Where Baetens grants the film its heart, Heldenbergh grants it its mind and the two of them play off each other, through each laugh, each tear and each simple conversation, just brilliantly. Their performances are emotional but not melodramatic, and they both display a fierce amount of love for the characters and their story. Similarly, Nell Cattrysse is a revelation as Maybelle. When the three of them are on screen together they ooze charisma and charm, which makes the progression of their tale all the more upsetting.

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However, the film struggles when it tries to extend itself beyond the central drama of the story. Groeningen and Heldenbergh attempt to shoehorn in a political and social message about the pointlessness of war, the emptiness of life and the evils of religion which, though it doesn’t overwhelm the drama, often interferes with the natural flow of the story. The film has such respect and admiration for American bluegrass music that it can’t help but attempt to then distance itself from the politics of America. Rants about the rejection of stem-cell research and the rush to war are thrown in to give the drama some meat but, alas, they have the complete opposite effect, resulting in a film that sometimes feels like it doesn’t really know what it wants to be, particularly towards the end.

It’s a shame too because when it’s at its best, The Broken Circle Breakdown is a truly stunning piece of cinema. There are moments of such wondrous subtlety, when the music’s natural beauty is allowed to tell its own story or when the embrace of a couple tells you more than dialogue ever could, that these gauche rants about how terrible certain aspects of life are feel all the more grating. The film would have benefitted immeasurably from trimming these elements down considerably, especially when the story is more than powerful and affecting enough to get by without them. A greater focus on the romance, the music and the tragedy would have done it the world of good.

Thankfully though, The Broken Circle Breakdown is so fantastic when it’s stripped down to its simplicities that the politics don’t completely ruin the film. 80% of it is both beautiful and melancholy, and Van Groeningen deserves praise for delivering a film that manages to pack such a fierce emotional punch without ever descending into banality.

Brilliantly performed, solidly directed and (mostly) well written, The Broken Circle Breakdown is a great film, it’s just one that needs a serious dose of harsh editing now and then…