Film Review: “The Broken Circle Breakdown” — Hang on for the Second Half

The first half of “The Broken Circle Breakdown” is directed in the most conventional way. In the better second half, the leads dig deeply into their characters, sing bluegrass wonderfully.

The Broken Circle Breakdown, directed by Felix Van Groeningen. At cinemas around New England.

A scene from "The Broken Circle Breakdown."

A scene from “The Broken Circle Breakdown.”

By Gerald Peary

Didier (Johan Heidenbergh) and Elise (Veerie Baetens) meet kind of cute in the Flemish feature, The Broken Circle Breakdown, when he saunters into her tattoo parlor to flirt with the pretty girl covered with inked-in Art Nouveau butterflies. He’s amused (and turned on) by her autobiographical trip up and down her body, in which she shows tattoos covering up the names below of ex-boyfriends. He finds all of this kind of kooky and exotic, but he has no desire at all for a tattoo on his own body. A warning sign that they are fundamentally different? More, she has no knowledge at all of what obsesses him, playing bluegrass banjo with a band singing in Appalachian-accented English, though they are living in Ghent, Belgium. Elise has never heard of Didier’s idol, mandolinist Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass.

For a time, Elise comes his way, as she moves into his rural flat, both of them emulating American country life. She attends his band’s concerts and appreciates them, and, in an amazing transformation, she joins the band as an Alison Krauss-like soloist. She and Didier have a steamy sex life, until, one day, she finds herself pregnant. Didier balks at being a father, then changes his mind. They marry, they have a daughter, Maybelle, named after country music legend, Maybelle Carter. Flash ahead five years: Maybelle gets cancer. She’s in the hospital getting chemotherapy.

The Broken Circle Breakdown, directed by Felix Von Groeningen from a stage play by the film’s star, Johan Heidenbergh, sounds fairly enticing and interesting. But the first half of the film is directed in the most conventional way, veering toward a Lifetime movie. I didn’t believe the actors or the story, and I was ready to ankle the film when Dieter’s bluegrass band, coming on like Snow White’s cuddly dwarfs, serenaded the sick child with a moony rendition of “Wimoweh: the Lion Sleeps Tonight.” I recalled that The Broken Circle Breakdown had won, at the Berlin Film Festival, the Audience Award, usually indicating a maudlin, manipulative,”heart-warming” movie. Not a dry retina in the unwashed house.

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! Read no further if you don’t want to know that Oedipus killed his father, married his mother, or whatever.

The kid dies! 45 minutes into the film, with 65 minutes to go. What can happen? To my surprise, The Broken Circle Breakdown finally gets some chops, as Didier and Elise break down (the movie title!) over the tragedy of their daughter. There are mutual incriminations. Elise accuses Didier of never wanting a child, and of abandoning her when Maybelle was born so he could drink with his friends. And there is cancer in his family, not hers. Didier is aware that Elise drank and smoked during the first months of her pregnancy.

More important is their incompatibility about spiritual issues. Elise is a kind of New Age crazy, who sees signs that Maybelle is still about because Maybelle loved birds, and birds are about. “If I want to believe Maybelle is a star in the sky, I will,” she obstinately declares to her husband. Meanwhile, Didier is revealed as a rationalist atheist, a hater of fundamentalist religion, blaming the Pope and then President George W. (the story is set a decade ago) for the woes of the world. Not surprisingly, they break up, and here, at last, the story hurts. In the film’s second half, the two leads dig deeply and intensely into their characters, Finally, we care for Elise and Didier, and its tragic that their marriage just can’t work.

Also, the lead actors sing their bluegrass songs wonderfully, in such expert English you would think they are dubbed. The most painful, poignant moment in the film is a duet of a non-bluegrass song done bluegrass style: Townes Van Zandt’s sad, sad, “If I Needed You.” The estranged couple, not daring to look at each other even as they harmonize, make it even sadder, like strung-out addicts suffering alone, though side by side.

Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.

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