The Broken Circle Breakdown

2014-07-25 13:25
What it's about:

Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) are two very different people who fall in love, start a family and play together in a bluegrass band but when their young daughter is diagnosed with cancer, the couple are forced to confront their major differences and the very basis of their love.

What we thought:

Straight off the bat, lets make one thing clear: The Broken Circle Breakdown is a tough, frequently heartbreaking film that is absolutely not for those looking for a light, fun night out at the cinema. It is, however, a deep and profoundly moving near-masterpiece that we are truly fortunate to have gracing our screens when so many foreign-language art films are consigned to straight-to-DVD oblivion in this country.

It's a film that deals with love, life and loss and the way spiritual belief – or the lack thereof – profoundly shapes our lives; all tied together by classic American folk music. The Broken Circle Breakdown may be Belgian in origin but its soul is profoundly American as its use of folk, country and bluegrass doesn't simply set the tone of the film but is interwoven into every aspect of it. Even the title is a riff on the perennial folk song, Will the Circle Be Unbroken.

True, it's not a musical in a traditional sense, as the music is presented in a realistic, non-suddenly-bursting-into-song manner but there are few “real” musicals that are driven by their music as much as The Broken Circle Breakdown. Like the wonderful but decidedly more accessible Once, this is a story of two incredibly talented musicians falling in love, at least in part through the shared loved of music – though, in this case, of a musical style that is neither of their time or their place but whose timelessness speaks to them anyway.

Unlike Once, however, where the music was primarily about expressing romantic longing (none more so than the Oscar-winning Falling Slowly), the music in Broken Circle is primarily about death and life-after-death. As the couple are faced with the unspeakable tragedy of a dying child, the music takes on an all new level of significance. While the characters themselves are challenged by what they're singing, the audience is granted a greater understanding of the characters' unspoken thoughts through the very same song.

One song in particular - the performance of which acts as the film's emotional and narrative turning point - all but entirely sums up all the themes, ideas and emotions that run throughout the film. Wayfaring Stranger - a song that seems to have apparently been sung by every country- and folk-singer ever – is a heartbreaking hymn that talks about how a voyage into the next life contextualises all the misery and suffering of this one and is sung by Elise, a believer, whose child lies (possibly) dying in hospital and whose non-believing partner looks on with an expression of pure anguish. It's a heartbreaking scene framed by an absolutely exquisite rendition of one of the most beautiful folk songs ever written and it tells us very nearly everything we need to know about these two people and the film itself.

Almost as powerful, is the the film's use of Townes Van Zandt's If I Needed You towards the end of the film, where our characters' entire relationship is summed up spectacularly by the very slightly asynchronous and ultimately broken duet that the two perform together of the song. Baetens and Heldenbergh sell these moments perfectly through performances that are equally impressive on musical and acting levels, while Nell Cattrysse is guaranteed to both melt and break your heart as their sparky, lively young daughter, Maybelle. Meanwhile, the other members of the Broken Circle Breakdown Band ensure maximum authenticity on all the musical numbers and act as emotional support for our suffering couple as well.

Director Felix Van Groeningen occasionally lets the pace lag slightly but – working off the screenplay based on a play by Heldenbergh himself - he crafts an otherwise perfectly balanced mixture of heartbreaking pathos and thought-provoking ideas, built around a real sense of romanticism and a pitch perfect soundtrack of life-affirming and deeply spiritual American roots music. It's a tough, sometimes depressing movie but is really worth seeing – or, at the very least, listening to its soundtrack.

A tough but powerful meditation on love, music and spirituality, The Broken Circle Breakdown is a must for discerning film goers and American roots music fans alike.
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Bonita 2014/07/28 21:11
Please let me know where this movie is showing in Cape Town thank you
Julian Goldberg 2014/07/31 16:51
Excellent movie about life and how people react differently to situations.
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