The problem for Felix van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown is that it will be hard to find. Those of you who were lucky enough to attend the Berlin Film Festival this year might have caught it in the Panorama section (and I hope you did), but everyone else best get on their knees and pray, because this film deserves to be seen by a wider audience. Hopefully the two awards it won last weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival (for female lead Baetens and the screenplay) will mean it will be playing in your neighborhood soon.
That’s not to say it’s an easy film to watch, much like Van Groeningen’s last output (2009’s The Misfortunates). Some might resort to the easy criticism of ‘misery porn.’ But Van Groeningen’s strength, in both films, is that he manages to interject lighter, happier moments in between the dark spots, creating a balanced and realistic look at the lives of his protagonists. In The Broken Circle Breakdown these are Didier (Johan Heldenbergh, who also collaborated with Van Groeningen on The Misfortunates), a singer and banjo player in a bluegrass band (it’s unclear if he has any other occupation), and Elise (Veerle Baetens), a tattoo artist with a penchant to use her own body as a canvas. The film chronicles the demise of their relationship from the sweet beginning until the bitter end, but since the film is a big jumble of flashbacks, it is not a slow descent but a mixture of highs and lows, which makes the film a roller coaster ride of emotions, and the final punch that much more effective. The opening scene shows Didier and Elise in hospital, tending their sick daughter Maybelle, who suffers from leukemia, so when the following scenes show the happy start of their lives together, we are already prepared for misfortune to come. This is a trick Van Groeningen employs often in the film, but it doesn’t make the impact of the dramatic moments any less, in fact it strengthens them. The film draws comparisons to Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, which employs a similar cross-cutting approach to portraying the central relationship. While Cianfrance’s film has two stronger leads, The Broken Circle Breakdown is more affecting because the characters are more sympathetic, and the reasons for the relationship going bust are more heartbreaking. It’s safe to say, if you liked Blue Valentine, you will probably like this too.
A special mention must be made of the music. The film features several full songs and performances from Didier’s band (which gives the film its title), which eventually is extended with Elise. The songs are all sung and played by the actual actors in the film (Baetens in particular has an excellent voice), and often are a commentary on the proceedings, perhaps not always lyrically, but certainly in tone. Music is also shown as a soothing remedy in dealing with life’s darkest moments (and there are a few in this film). As such, it almost becomes a character of its own.
The only times the film falters are when it takes its political stance against prohibition of stem cell research (in light of Maybelle’s disease, obviously). At those times the film becomes preachy, in one instance quite literally, and while one might agree with the point of view, it does not make for good cinema, no matter how well Didier’s frustration is portrayed by Heldenbergh. The film doesn’t need it, and as an argument for the friction between Didier and Elise it feels forced. Luckily, those moments are few and far between.
On the acting front, the film belongs firmly to the two leads. Heldenbergh and Baetens create a believable relationship and have good chemistry, certainly in the ‘happy’ scenes. Baetens especially has great screen presence as the pixie girl Didier loses his heart to. The supporting cast is given very little to do, with only young Nell Cattrysse as Maybelle given a somewhat more fleshed-out role. The screenplay is good, though some of the dialogue is a little contrived (Heldenbergh struggles with this at times). Because of its time-jumping nature, the story hits the right notes at the right times. If the events had been in chronological order, the film would probably be the poorer for it, a testament to the strength of the screenplay in this regard. On the technical side, Van Groeningen makes excellent cinematographical and audio decisions to handle the tone of scenes. Art direction is apt, and the makeup department deserves a special mention for all the tattoos that decorate Baetens’ body.