Bluegrass, sex and the shadow of death. Those are the elements that bind together the lyrical and longwinded Broken Circle Breakdown, a drama that jumps back and forth between two stories: that of how a young couple fell in love, and how their love failed.
Early on in the film, director Felix Van Groeningen shows us the couple’s lovely little girl. She has beautiful brown hair and life-threatening cancer. A nervous sadness is on the face of her scraggly-bearded father, Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), and tears well in the eyes of her heavily tattooed mother, Elise (Veerle Baetens). But theses images — of turmoil, of sorrow, of confusion — are juxtaposed with flashbacks, showing Didier and Elise falling in love many years prior. Back then, Didier played his banjo and Elise softly sang along to classic bluegrass ballads. Next thing you know, the blonde bombshell is bearing all on her tattoos on Didier’s old red pickup truck. He loves America –“the land for dreamers”– and she can tell.
But while the couple’s relationship seems to start quickly enough, the viewer’s relationship to them doesn’t. We know they have a sick child, but that tragedy doesn’t bind us to them right off the bat. Likewise, all we identify in the couple’s early romance is that (a.) this dude’s blood runs bluegrass, (b.) this girl is tattoo crazy, and (c.) they are enjoying lots of sex. While all those things are cool, they’re not quite endearing. And an indifference to the couple lasts for about half the movie. (However, if you think bluegrass is God’s gift to ears, you might see this whole dynamic differently.)
One eventually starts to care about the couple when the film’s flashback-flashforward structure hits its dramatic stride. We get closer to the dying girl and get a better feel for her parents — what makes them laugh, mad, aroused, sad. Suddenly, the sex scenes become much more than indications of physical intimacy, and the songs emerge as the pillars that’ve supported the film’s structure all along. (To say they do the heavy-lifting would be an understatement.) But then a new issue arises.
Now comes a battle of belief, between the atheist husband and the eclectic wife. And it’s more of an assault than a battle. Didier goes on embarrassing tirades that ring bombastic to an unbelievable pitch. It’s a shame, because just when the film starts to shine in its clever architecture, it caves under the weight of its dramatic solution. In the end, the film puts a bow on a narrative that tries so hard to be neat that it’s little inconsistencies blare, like strings out of tune.
To its credit, there was one little scene that deserves particular mention. The 9/11 scene — Bush addressing the world on a standard definition TV — as framed from the European perspective. It’s something one doesn’t see in foreign movies not about war or terrorism, and here it’s pretty affecting. Perhaps this is, in part, why The Broken Circle Breakdown is the Belgian best foreign-language film entry in the up-coming Academy Awards. Truly, the movie has lots of love for America, and there’s reason to think Americans might love it back.