Broken Circle Breakdown

Belgians, Bluegrass, Beards, Tattoos, Child Cancer, Marriage, Death, Birth, Life, Sex, Religion, Science, Politics, America, Birds, Stars and Suicide. The Broken Circle Breakdown is about all this and more.
It's a phenomenal, brilliant, difficult, depressing, heart warming and joyously musical movie from Belgium by writer/director Felix Van Groeningen starring the supremely talented Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens. 
Johan Heldenbergh was also a co-writer of and performer in the original stage play The Broken Circle Breakdown Featuring the Cover-Ups of Alabama and even learned to play guitar, mandolin and banjo to perform the lead role of Didier who is fascinated by America and bluegrass music.

The film tells the tragic story of Didier, the bearded bluegrass fanatic and passionate atheist, Elise/Alabama the head strong, mysterious, confused, emotional, sexy and lost tattoo shop owner and Maybelle their doomed daughter.

The film chronicles their lives together, through the good and the bad, in a nonlinear narrative. The emotions involved and the relevant life moments, though, flow in a perfectly understandable and pleasing way. It's not unlike someone, sat round a table, telling you their life story. It wouldn't go from start to finish, there would be moments where they'd have to go back and fill in the blanks for you, that's the nature of this film.
The characters meet, fall in love, find joy, get pregnant, face that hurdle, have a child, suffer that child getting leukaemia and passing away and then the rest of the film shows how both Didier and Elise handle that while also taking time to cover the religious, spiritual, political and scientific ramifications of that. Didier is thrown more passionately into his steadfast belief in science and the political, religious fundamentalists who would block its exploration, while also desperately, emotionally and lovingly trying to keep his marriage and music together and Elise begins to find beauty and solace in notions of re-incarnation or the spiritual realm but also retreats from a situation she sees no remedy to and slowly, tragically abandons everything.
Interspersed through all this tough life stuff is some of the most exquisite live performance of bluegrass, country and Americana roots music by a brilliant team of bearded Belgians. It's one of the best movie soundtracks of this kind, in my humble opinion, this side of O Brother, Where Art Thou? 

The director, Felix Van Groeningen, explains the inclusion of the music this way:
"Didier and Elise play in a bluegrass band and that is no accident. Bluegrass is integrated in a variety of ways into the story and forms the intrinsic link between all the main issues that appear in the film"
"We have tried to let the songs find their spot in the scenario in a more organised manner and by doing so, give them the greatest possible dramatic impact. Sometime a song is purely narrative and helps to tell the story... In other places, we select a given song because it underpins the emotions."
The music, overseen and, very often, written originally by Bjorn Eriksson is most definitely the soul of this film and where it really hits its stride in terms of displaying truth, beauty and raw emotion. The whole film could've been dialogue free and told in just that incredible series of performances such is the skill of the actors and musicians. It helps immensely that the two leads perform the songs themselves and so can imbue them with the emotional journey their character is taking.
During the rendition of 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken' We see attraction, amazement and the first flickers of love in Elise's face from the audience.
During "Cowboy" Didier connects with Elise, shows off, struts, feels confident and she responds with excitement, awe and lust.
During "Boy Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn", shown in a fantastic montage that goes from Didier practicing in the caravan, passed a beautifully photographed, fireside hoedown and up to the point when Elise finally joins her man on stage, you see her blossom and Didier unable to believe his luck. You even see the band buoyed and pushed forward by the way everything is gelling.
The band performing "In the jungle" to a returning home but sick Maybelle is as joyous as it is heart wrenching.
Elise's solo performance of "Wayfaring Stranger" is so powerful and perfect that it doesn't really need the intercut images of poor Maybelle's fate, as everything is on Veerle Baetens' face and in the words of the song.
This continues throughout the film with everyone hitting the right facial expression, hand gesture, camera movement and edit so as to make the emotions utterly raw and believable in a way that only the combination of great direction, editing, performance, music and film can.
In what might be one of the most beautiful performances of the entire film, Elise joins Didier and the band on stage one last time to perform a duet version of "If I needed You". It is the point where everything shifts and the two lovers are moving apart, Didier reaching out and Elise retreating. It's so sad, awkward and stunningly simplistic that it tells you all you need to know about the character's hearts.

These musical interludes and their deep, clever, subtle storytelling are not, in any way, too obvious, mawkish, sentimental, over wrought or manipulative. They are woven so perfectly into the broken narrative that they enhance the journey you're on with the cast.
It helps, of course, that I am already a fan of this music and it helps too that the film is photographed, directed and edited in such a wonderful way as to make even the slightest nod of a head, or the move of a hand poetic and rich.
The colours, the grain, the lighting, the sound and the shots are so full of detail, texture, shadow as to both be seemingly realistic, you can feel the warm fire in a cold farm house, and utterly artistic, vibrant and clearly a movie.
Is it a tough watch, a tad depressing and definitely melodramatic? yes. It wasn't the love story I was expecting by a long shot but whereas other films I have seen are just relentlessly dreary, depressing, slow and devoid of ideas and emotions, Broken Circle Breakdown can be watched over and over again for the depth, detail, performances and ideology it has. Also it's not obvious, simplistic or manipulative of your emotions like a Hollywood film might be. 
I took from the film that life is meant to be held on to and fought for, not given up on or run away from and while finding solace in the religious or spiritual is all very well, there is more than enough beauty, mystery, music and reason to keep living, as much as you can, day by day, on earth, no matter how hard it gets. You never know, one day you might be surrounded by awesomely talented, bearded Belgians singing bluegrass... we can all dream, right?
The Broken Circle Breakdown Theatrical Opening Dates:
New York: Sunshine Cinema – opens November 1

Los Angeles: Nuart – opens November 8
Boston: Kendall Square - opens November 15
Washington: E Street - opens November 15
Philadelphia: Ritz Bourse - opens November 15
Irvine: University 6 - opens November 15
San Francisco: Clay Theater – opens November 22
Berekely: Shattuck 10 – opens November 22
San Diego: Ken Cinema – opens November 22
Dallas: Magnolia 5 – opens November 22
Atlanta: Midtown Art – opens December 6
Denver: Chez Artiste – opens December 6
Austin: Arbor 8 – opens December 6
Phoenix: Camelview – opens December 6
Portland: Regal Fox Tower – opens December 6
San Jose: Camera 3 Cinema – opens December 6
Fort Wayne: Cinema Center - opens December 6
Santa Fe: Jean Cocteau - opens December 6
Monterey: Osio Cinemas – opens December 6
Santa Cruz: The Nickelodeon – Opens December 6
Ft Worth: Modern Art Museum – opens December 20
Columbus: Gateway Film Center – opens January 17


The soundtrack can be streamed on Spotify HERE

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