Review: Broken Circle Breakdown

“You’ll rue the day that you were born. For givin’ me the devil cause I wouldn’t hoe corn.”

This is the stuff of old country music, the purest of joy taken, perhaps from mistakes made, perhaps just fate teasing and cruelly taking away. I have not been this emotionally affected by a film since Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, but where that film is angry, manipulative and often recklessly dishonest in its melodrama (which I also love) for the purpose of provocation, Felix Van Groeningen’s Broken Circle Breakdown is earnest, warm, and utterly human – but no less calculated. In terms of an emotional endurance test, this is as powerful as anything I have seen, and yet it is an earnest, completely accessible slice of pop cinema as well. This is something of a miracle.

Opening in the warm yellows of a small town Flemish bar (a familiar location if you have seen the director’s previous The Misfortunates) Didier and his band are having a great time on stage singing Bluegrass tunes in accented american English to the locals. Cut to a harsh white light of a hospital room, icy cinematography that I have come to associate with Northern European film. It is presumably at some point in the future, and Didier’s young daughter, Maybelle, is getting injections for her advancing bone cancer. Didier’s wife, and singing partner, Elise makes a quietly tense plea to keep a positive face in front of Maybelle. Tears are to be bottled up until they are not in the hospital. This is impossible for such an empathetic husband and father who has never really had a reason to hide his emotions. Cut back to an even earlier point, where Didier charmingly meets and picks up Elise at the tattoo parlor where she works. He offers an impassioned, playful monologue about Hank Williams Sr. and Bill Monroe. Cut to their daughter playing with chickens in the yard of the converted church that Didier and Elise have converted to a home. Back to Maybelle’s cancer going into remission while she loses her hair and still requires more injections. This is the way that Broken Circle Breakdown juxtaposes carefree joy with wrenching emotional pain.

The film has plenty of time for quiet moments as well. Didier smokes a cigarette while his dog chases those same chickens in the dawn hours of the day. As much as the film is an effective, smile inducing, tear jerking empathy engine, it is very much a musical as well. There are plenty of great bluegrass numbers scattered across the film. The associations and attention to detail in the filmmaking is very much like the that of a songwriter. But the long-form visual nature of movies allows Groeningen to have his immediate emotional response, and work in a lot of character and ideas into the mix as well. The couples first blush of passion, sex and little responsibility to anything but making music gives way to the multitude responsibilities of building a family, the conflict, compromise and domestic joys of it all. How punk can evolve into parenting. It sounds typical, even cliche, but under the gaze of Groeningen’s camera it is anything but. The cancer, and the emotional stress offers moments to pull together, but for such an emotional couple, it also rips them to pieces. With death in the room, his atheism and her faith in faith put belief as the primary trigger for their fights and emotional release. The music brings joy, but then guilt for having joy while Maybelle suffers. It is complicated stuff; the tug-of-war of comforting illusions, rationalizations and impossible to articulate feelings.

Maybelle takes her first steps on September 2001, while planes smash into the towers, ignored in the background. Later, Didier gets enraged at watching a President Bush speech putting roadblocks in the way of stem-cell research, roadblocks that have may have delayed key findings to their daughters help. The film is not didactic, political, or movie-of-the-week in the slightest, this stuff drives our understanding of Didier’s frustration, rage, and his outlet for such things. A delicious, bleak, irony that the country he adores so much impedes something he desperately needs. Life is full of these types such tragic things. But the tone is far, very far, from just suffering and gloom. It is more than the sum of portent symbols of sadness to come or emotions attached to objects from events past though these things are all there.

The absurd kinetic-ism and joie de vivre so heartily (and raunchily) on display in The Misfortunates is further honed and elevated here. Elvis as a priest presiding at the small wedding amongst friends. A birthday party with a dozen girls belting out the theme song to a goofy girls superhero TV show. Elise’s many colourful tattoos peaking out of her country singer wardrobe. The tattoos in fact are in many cases inked over symbols of her love to past boyfriends, the image-on-skin reincarnated into something wilder still. She gets a tattoo with Didier’s name at one point. It is a six shooter. Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens play the onscreen couple with rich emotional range, compelling and believable musical performances, and so much inviting empathy; even when each of them are at their lowest. It is telling in their several sex scenes which are raw and intimate and intense at the same time, it also implies the ephemeral nature of all such things, of course, depending on your own spiritual thoughts or beliefs. The film confronts these things occasionally quite head on, somehow without being obnoxious about it or feeling preachy.

It is staggering to think how much of the human experience Groeningen, his five screenwriters and three lead performances manages to stuff into Broken Circle Breakdown, if this review seems to mention too many key moments in the film, you are mistaken, this barely barely scratches the surface of what is accomplished here in a mere 100 minutes of drama and song. If it were possible to bottle such an erratic and chaotic thing such as a life (or three) and make sense of so much of the senselessness, it has been accomplished in bravura fashion in this film; even if lives are cut short, where the devil may get his due. Here are more lyrics from bluegrass singer, Alison Krauss “Why do you come for me to wed? Can’t even make your own corn grain. Single I am and will remain; A lazy man I won’t maintain.” Pure American country transported to Flandres.

Broken Circle Breakdown is already unabashedly, unpretentiously, even gloriously one of my favorite films of the year! After playing on only a single screen last weekend, the film is opening a little wider, including Toronto’s TIFF BELL LIGHTBOX. Go See it.

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BobTurnbull
Guest

My goodness what a wonderful piece of humanity this is…It’s the best thing I’ve seen this year. The music is gloriously great, but also meshes with the story and adds to it. The emotion is earned and the edits back and forth in the timeline (without ever confusing the viewer) add to the joy and pain on screen. van Groeningen has vaulted into my list of directors that I must now maniacally follow…
I’ll just echo Kurt and say “Go see it”. Please.

themarina
Guest

I had a really difficult time with this, particularly the use of specific
musical queues which I had a hard time coping with (upbeat music/heartbreaking
moment) and the non-linear story structure didn’t work for me either. Rather
than seeing the parallels between the good and bad in life all I could think
about was when the next musical number would start. I just couldn’t connect
with the characters.
It does look and sound fantastic and I loved individual scenes but as a
whole, I was left feeling really confused.

ajames1
Guest

themarina Yeah I still am not  convinced the non-linear structure works.  At least not for me.  I was just waiting the whole time to catch up with the ambulance.  Once we see the ambulance, nothing else matters until we get there.  It was really frustrating.

Sean Kelly
Guest

BobTurnbull This film has a pretty good chance at being at or near the top of my favourite films of the year.

Sean Kelly
Guest

ajames1 themarina This non-linear structure is pretty much the exactly the same as Blue Valentine, in how it contrasts happy moments to tragic ones.
I wasn’t really that bothered by the ambulance, though I do admit it came suddenly.

BobTurnbull
Guest

ajames1 themarina Nothing else matters? On the contrary, EVERYTHING else matters! The structure of showing an event and then showing the lead up to it emphasizes each and every little moment, shows the pointlessness of each little argument and really does invoke the old saw “live every moment to its fullest”. Waiting to see what happened that leads up to the ambulance makes those tender moments more sweet, but of the bitter variety.
I was never confused as I felt the filmmakers gave you immediate clues as to where you were in the story. The structure didn’t feel like an attempt to be clever, but an honest way of invoking the emotion of the roller coaster ride of a relationship.
But hey, you two aren’t the only ones who didn’t like the format of the film. I just spoke to someone else last night who echoed your statements almost exactly…
Me? I can’t wait to see it again.

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