The Broken Circle Breakdown
There was nothing I didn’t like about this film. Elise (Veerle Baetens), a tattoo artist, takes up with the slightly older Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), a farmer and bluegrass banjo player, and they shack up on his spread outside Ghent in Belgium. Elise, possessor of a wonderful voice, starts singing in Didier’s band. She unexpectedly falls pregnant, after initial resistance he is completely supportive, and their daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) is born. Maybelle gets cancer at four years old, and dies. The couple’s relationship slowly and painfully ruptures. However, this reductive précis does little justice to the richness of director Felix van Groeningen’s extraordinary film.
For a start, there is the non-linear storytelling, which is not some gratuitously pseudo-cool postmodern device, but integral to building the contrast between past and present. There is something of the European hipster’s ambivalent relationship with America reflected in the film’s attitudes – love the music and movies, hate the politics – a version of Greil Marcus’ Two Americas. In dealing with their grief, post-bereavement, Didier’s finding a rationalist consolation in music while Elise relies increasingly on magical thinking, is rehearsed a head/heart, reason/instinct debate.
To be specific, there are so many deft little touches on show here. At their first meeting, Elise suggests an Elvis tattoo for Didier, intoning ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, to which the replies: “Hank Williams! Elvis is a pansy. Bill Monroe is the greatest musician who ever lived.” The secondary characters, mostly the other band members, are never obtrusive but quietly present. We see how they progress from playing bars to halls to theatres, but this is never commented on. The recriminations after Maybelle’s death are sadly recognisable: “I drank and smoked during the first three months’ of pregnancy”; “You were drunk for a week and got jaundice and so I couldn’t breast-feed”; “There’s no cancer in my family”.
But perhaps the overriding recommendation of this movie is that it has one of the most effective uses of music in a non-musical, non-documentary feature film I’ve ever seen, emotionally resonant but perfectly integrated into the plot. If the band’s performance, and the context in which it appears, of Townes Van Zant’s ‘If I Needed You’ doesn’t reduce you to tears, nothing will.
There are minor quibbles: it gets a bit preachy towards the end (but since this proselytizing is directed against fundamentalist religion, and George W. Bush in particular, that’s okay – it reinforces my worldview); he survives, she doesn’t, which might seem like an unfortunate gender stereotype (but hey, grief can do that, and just because it happens in this story, doesn’t mean it’s being extrapolated into some universal truth). So these are, as noted, minor quibbles. Taken as a totality, it is rare to see a film of such emotional intelligence, which does not obviously patronise or manipulate its audience. Yes, nothing I didn’t like about this film.