A bluegrass group in Belgium singing songs like "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" is just the start for a movie about oppositions that are impossible to reconcile.
Two of the singers, much different from each other, fall in love, and have a child. The child contracts a serious cancer. It’s a recipe for cheap sentimentality, but the structure of the film – it’s scrambling of events in time – gives it the steel it needs to find understanding not just sadness.
When Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), the band’s lead singer, falls in love with Elise (Veerle Baetens), the only woman singer in the group, he tells her about his love for old instruments like violins and banjos, as well as culture in general, and most of all, Appalachia in the US.
Before the movie gets to that, however, it jumps in time to when the two have a young daughter seriously ill in the hospital. And all of these elements – the courtship, the music and the sick daughter – are inter-cut throughout the movie, which leads to a mélange of emotion, sometimes rich and sometimes overwhelming.
On the surface, Didier and Elise are not much alike. He lives in the country, drives a maroon pickup, wears cowboy boots and hat, and above his beard, his face is sort-of saintly-gaunt. Elise looks fuller, more lush and more grounded on the Earth -- she’s also covered in tattoos.
Elise is more city than Didier, but the crux of "The Broken Circle Breakdown" is that the world is full of contradictions that simply cannot be reconciled, like the idyllic farm where all the elements come from the natural world -- dirt, wood, trees – set against the techno-sterilty of the hospital which is all crisp stainless steel and white plastic.
But Elise and Didier both sing bluegrass, and to an American eye and ear, it’s a constant wonder how these shaggy Belgians (the men at least) are utterly dedicated to rural American music.
"The Broken Circle Breakdown" has a remarkable eye for how trouble creeps into people’s lives, and how parents sometimes only figure things out after they’ve been going on for a while. Even though moments in the lives of Elise, Didier and their daughter Maybelle are scrambled in time, you still get the sense of chronology and progression.
As the movie orders events, you know right away that Maybelle has a cancer and she gets a stem cell transplant, but then you see her before diagnosis when her parents are starting to piece together ominous signs. Maybelle is tired, her gums bleed a bit and she bruises easily.
The film’s getting at the idea that all moments are contained in every single moment.
That Maybelle’s birth is part of the moment when Didier and Elise first meet, that Maybelle’s cancer is embedded in the first time her parents have sex.
And also the reverse – that the band playing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is contained in the time a healthy Maybelle plays outside or from her hospital bed asks her father to tell her a story she loves about light coming from stars.
Director Felix Van Groeningen creates some magnificent images in "The Broken Circle Breakdown."
When Maybelle weeps over a bird that killed itself flying into a pane of glass, Maybelle has been through chemo therapy. She wears a blue scarf wrapped beautifully around her head, and the exquisite simultaneity of life and death takes your breath away.
The one itch I get from "The Broken Circle Breakdown" is that stories about bad things, like diseases hitting children, can be cheap. It’s no trick to get sympathy for a child with cancer so the movie better have some steel to it.
I think the discipline in the picture comes from its shape, from the hard shifts between irresistible sadness and the lovely weirdness of a Belgian bluegrass band, between energetic sex and the balding and weakening child.
The film deserves credit for its courageous imagination as well as its humanity.