Grief and Sadness Overwhelm the Romance of “The Broken Circle Breakdown”
The Broken Circle Breakdown is undoubtedly the most depressing film of 2013. Themes of grief, death and loss are not a bad thing to devote your time to, but this film ultimately chooses to wallow in its angst and becomes a maudlin exercise in punishing its characters and to a lesser extent its audience.
Didier plays banjo in a bluegrass band in Belgium. He meets Elise who begins to share in his passion for Americana and proves to be an impressive singer in her own right. The couple has a child, Maybelle. As their musical star is on the rise, Maybelle develops leukemia. The disease wreaks havoc on Maybelle’s body and on their marriage.
The film is told in non-linear fragments, bouncing from Maybelle’s treatment in the hospital to Didier and Elise getting acquainted with one another to their bluegrass gigs in the clubs and theaters of Belgium. While time-jumping narratives have been overdone since films like Memento made them so hip, the approach works in The Broken Circle Breakdown. As the trials and tribulations accumulate for the couple, the audience is given glimpses of their former happiness to remind us what originally bound these two characters together. Unfortunately, there is little substance to their courtship, and sex scenes substitute for any real bonding between the couple. It’s the relationship equivalent of the training montages in the Rocky films.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Johan Heldenbergh infuses Didier with the passion of a musician. Quiet and thoughtful off-stage, he comes alive in front of an audience. Music gives him a reason to live until Elise enters his life and changes it forever. Veerle Baetens is believable as Didier’s beautiful muse who has unexplored talents of her own, and little Nell Cattrysse plays a six-year-old cancer patient with uncanny realism.
The music is infectious, and the soundtrack is a must-buy for anyone who is a fan of bluegrass and country music. From my cursory research, I’m uncertain which of the actors (if any) did their own singing, but the three- and four-part harmonies are amazing. The singer providing the vocals for Elise sounds like a slightly less nasal version of award-winning Australian country/folk performer Kasey Chambers. (If you like this musical genre, pick up her album “Barricades and Brick Walls” while you’re at it.)
So where does The Broken Circle Breakdown, uh, breakdown? Essentially, everywhere else. The script turns into a dramatic exercise in Murphy’s Law: What can go wrong, will go wrong. When the storm clouds roll in, no light re-emerges, and the plot points become increasingly predictable. Will so-and-so die? Probably. Will their relationship survive this trauma? I doubt it. These comments are not spoilers in the least. The atmosphere of The Broken Circle Breakdown leaves no doubt in the viewers’ minds or hearts. These are bad times for Didier and Elise, and they ain’t gettin’ better.
It’s also convenient that Didier is a devout atheist, and Elise is a spiritual (though not overtly religious) person leading to conversations about life and death that seem more like mini-speeches. And the authors of the screenplay (adapted from a stage play) can’t avoid giving Didier his “Big Moment” where he speechifies about everything we’ve just seen in case we didn’t understand what we saw. Sometimes less is more. Unfortunately, The Broken Circle Breakdown always errs on the side of “more”.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.