A film’s success can be determined by how much power it has over a viewer’s emotions. If it brings out his or her laughter at one point, only to expertly reduce the viewer to tears five minutes later, then it warrants serious accolades. Flemish Director Felix Van Groeningen has created such a film with The Broken Circle Breakdown, a sweeping drama about a Flemish couple finding their love and faith challenged.
When bluegrass banjo player Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens) meet, they fall in love immediately. Upon moving into a farmhouse and having their daughter Maybelle, it seems as though they’ve created an ideal life for themselves. Yet, as Elise claims in the movie, life isn’t generous. This becomes painfully clear when Maybelle is diagnosed with cancer. From that moment on, Elise and Didier feel helpless as they watch their perfect world crumble around them.
The film’s main conflict isn’t the question of what Elise and Didier do now that Maybelle has cancer, but rather how they adjust to each other’s way of coping with their new reality. Religion increasingly mollifies Elise’s shock, while rational Didier gets by on the here-and-now. The nonlinear timeline further heightens this friction as Van Groeningen weaves together scenes of the couple’s past with their present. Moments of joy crash into moments of sorrow in an incredible display of poignancy. The juxtapositions felt seamless; if anything, the raw emotion would have come across as too pathetic had the scenes followed a sequential order.
Aesthetically, The Broken Circle Breakdown was gorgeous to watch. The film’s atmosphere seems to have been carefully cultivated by Van Groeningen to embody Americana cowboy culture. Classic bluegrass music acts as a character itself, energizing both scenes and the audience with lovely harmonies and rhythmic twangs. Stylistically, Van Groeningen bathes his characters in the warm glow of a campfire. Even the rustic charm of Didier’s farmhouse captures that country feeling so much so that had the film been set in Tennessee instead of Belgium, no one would have noticed. Additionally, the extensive use of close-ups forces the viewer to directly face each character’s emotion, a decision that establishes a powerful connection between the audience and these tragic characters. These artistic choices demonstrate a director’s great eye for creating very real, very unrestrained stories, and the viewer can’t help but get emotionally involved with these characters’ lives.
This film manages to balance melodrama, comedy, romance and hearty bluegrass music in an epic 112 minutes of brilliant cinematography. Van Groeningen deserves many kudos for his heartbreakingly painful and emotionally-charged film. In fact, he’s already recieved a few: not only was The Broken Circle Breakdown winner of the Audience Award at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, the Tribeca Film Festival awarded it Best Screenplay for a Narrative Film and Best Actress for actress Veerle Baetens. For all it accomplishes, The Broken Circle Breakdown has definitely earned those awards.