Directed by: Felix Van Groeningen.
Written by: Carl Joose and Felix Van Groeningen based on the play by Johan Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels.
Starring: Veerle Baetens (Elise Vandevelde), Johan Heldenbergh (Didier Bontinck), Nell Cattrysse (Maybelle), Geert Van Rampelberg (William), Nils De Caster (Jock), Robbie Cleiren (Jimmy), Bert Huysentruyt (Jef), Jan Bijvoet (Koen), Blanka Heirman (Denise).
The Broken Circle Breakdown is a movie that seems like it should be an overly sentimental, hackneyed tearjerker, and yet somehow manages not to be. This is a movie after all that hinges on a child with cancer – and I cannot think of another example of a film that treats a child with cancer with the kind of respect that this film does. It doesn’t beat you over the head with its misery, although it doesn’t soft peddle it either. Besides, there is a lot more going on in The Broken Circle Breakdown than just a child with cancer – not least of which is the wonderful bluegrass music that runs through the entire film. You’d probably be right to skip a Hollywood version of the same story told here, but this Belgian film is beautifully well done.
The story cycles backs and forth in time, gradually moving further in out in all directions. It tells the story of Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), a bluegrass musician, and his relationship and eventual marriage to Elise (Veerle Baetens), a tattoo artist, who uses her body as a walking advertisement for her work, as well as a chronicle of her love life. The two begin dating, and eventually, Didier draws Elise into his bluegrass band as a co-lead vocalist. They have a beautiful daughter – Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) – and life seems good, until of course, Maybelle is diagnosed with cancer, and they have to go through a series of painful, ultimately futile, procedures.
This sounds like a heavy slog of a film, yet while the going isn’t easy, the film is more than just a parade of misery. The structure helps quite a bit – being able to move back and forth in time allows director Felix Van Groeningen not to pile all the cancer sequences on top of each other. Instead, he is able to show the connection slowly building between Didier and Elise – both an on-stage chemistry, and an undeniable sexual chemistry as well. Telling the story in this way does give even these early scenes a melancholy feel – we know where this is all leading to – but it’s one that works for the movie. The music also grows progressively darker as the movie progresses – these are not just musical interludes for the sake of musical interludes, but rather they advance the story, and illuminate the characters – perhaps nowhere more so than when the pair sing “If I Needed You”, which is a heartbreaking moment, as the answer becomes clear.
The movie makes a few missteps in its later stages. Up until the final act, the film had been subtly and effectively showing the difference between how Didier and Elise react when the inevitable comes – her wanting more and more to have faith – to believe in something beyond – and him being a more and more committed atheist. When the film was subtle about these changes, and the couple’s drifting apart, it was effective – when it brings it to the forefront – and has the characters start shouting at each other, and others, their effectiveness wanes considerably.
Still, even when The Broken Circle Breakdown makes some missteps, two elements keep it watchable – the first being the music, and the second being the performances. Performances in a movie like this are tricky, as you have to show the character evolving over such a long period of time, but only have a few moments to do so – both Heldenbergh and especially Baetens ground the movie at all times - she has the advantage of not being as overwritten as Didier is at times, and having the more heartbreaking finale, and she makes the most of it. And special mention should be made of little Nell Cattrysse as Maybelle – I’m never quite sure with child actors if the director or the children themselves should get the most credit – and I don’t think it really matters – but Cattrysse avoids most of the mawkish pitfalls that many child actors fall into when they are playing someone sick. She remains resolutely a child – a scared one, but one who loves her mommy and daddy, and just wants everything to be okay. Her performance is all the more heartbreaking because it doesn’t give us the BIG moments we expect her to get.
The Broken Circle Breakdown is a movie, like John Carney’s Once, that uses music to expand our understanding of the characters and the plot – and deepen our relationship with them. This is not an easy thing to do – many musicals fail completely, which is why many music numbers in films feel feel unnecessary. Here, they are essential. It’s a difficult thing to pull off – but The Broken Circle Breakdown does so beautifully.