The age old culture of Belgian bluegrass
The Broken Circle Breakdown is a film that revolves around the lives of a family of bluegrass musicians in Belgium. Certainly a strange thing to absorb initially, but the inherent peculiarity of The Broken Circle Breakdown is either unnoticed or ignored by the filmmakers, which forces us also to accept it all unreservedly. There’s nothing gimmicky about the way in which director Felix Van Groeningen presents his characters or their music, which might have seemed entirely ridiculous in the hands of the wrong director. In fact, the warm-hearted bluegrass music is absolutely integral to the success of Van Groeningen’s film.
Set in Ghent, Belgium, the film follows Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and Elise (Veerle Baetens) over the course of seven years. Elise is initially intrigued by Didier’s overflowing enthusiasm for the bluegrass genre and eventually falls in love with both the man and the music. We learned quickly through a back and forth timeline that their future has a severe case of Leukemia, which has been putting a stranger on Elise and Didier’s relationship. Permeating their lives is the music of Didier’s band, which Elise eventually joins, and his deep love of the American cowboy culture.
The Broken Circle Breakdown takes on the musical form in much the same way that Robert Altman’s Nashville did, and not just because of the resemblance of the music in Van Groeningen’s film to that of Altman’s. Performances by Didier and Elise’s band punctuate the film, sometimes augmenting the onscreen events, sometimes deliberately negating them and sometime existing just for the sake of the listening to the song itself. The awesome soundtrack is a strong argument for the natural healing powers of bluegrass music, something that the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou hinted at. There’s something life-affirming about the music in The Broken Circle Breakdown, offering the film an optimism even when for Didier and Elise there is none.
There’s a strong sense of melodrama to The Broken Circle Breakdown that begins to pervade the film during it’s final third. There’s an unexpected and unnatural focus shift toward Didier’s changing views on George Bush, America and the nation’s attitudes stem cell research. If they aren’t views shared by Van Groeningen it certainly doesn’t feel that way. Didier’s outbursts feel like strangely concocted lectures, incongruous with the rest of the film. Far stronger are the earlier scenes in which Didier and Elise are forced to deal with the anguish resulting from their child’s illness and the solace they find in performing music.
The disjointed narrative, which works superbly during the opening half, becomes unnecessary as the film heads towards its conclusion. The reason this technique is initially successful is because it allows Van Groeningen to convey as much information about Didier and Elise without being restricted by chronology. Continuing this jagged narrative beyond exposition means that we’re thrown all over the place, and teased events without context, which on eventual enlightenment mean they lose impact.
It’s hard not to get swept up along with the unusual energy of The Broken Circle Breakdown. The two lead performances by Heldenbergh and Baetens are so watchable, their relationship ignited by a physical connection but sustained by their mutual rage to live. The film is a pendulum of emotions, and though Van Groeningen might be manipulating us with the naturally uplifting bluegrass (which has enjoyed a healthy boost in interest in Belgium since the film’s release), it’s ultimately just impossible not to enjoy a film with such catchy music.