‘The Broken Circle Breakdown’ Is the Best Belgian Bluegrass Melodrama You’ll See All Year

By  · Published on November 1st, 2013

Watching two musicians performing onstage who are truly, deeply, madly in love is a rare and wonderful thing. At a concert I attended last spring, I witnessed a professional musician completely miss his entrance into a song because he was so transfixed in watching his partner sing. It was a surprisingly moving moment that transcended the supposedly calculated public-ness of stage performance – a room full of people witnessed a genuine encounter of real emotional intimacy.

The Belgian import The Broken Circle Breakdown creates a moment like this early on in the form of a predictable yet tender on-stage kiss between the two leads in the initial chapters of their relationship. It’s a simple and brief moment, yet it’s integral for a film like this to work. Despite the risk of seeming cliché, we have to believe that this public moment shared onstage matches the intimacy we’ve witnessed thus far in the couple’s private life. And it does work, so well in fact that it almost supports the whole film. As the central couple endures a devastating rollercoaster of a relationship, knowledge of their chemistry and love is essential for the film’s melodrama to feel both warranted and affecting.

Imbued with palpable sincerity by writer-director Felix Van Groeningen and performed convincingly by Johan Heldenbergh as banjo player Didier and Veerle Baetens as tattoo artist-turned-singer Elise, The Broken Circle Breakdown is a human drama of incredible intimacy whose episodic journey through life’s ups and downs is accompanied by some really outstanding bluegrass music.

Based on a play by Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels, the film takes a non-linear approach to the story of two lovers. The initial blossoming of their relationship in 1999 is cross-cut with their young daughter’s cancer treatment in 2006. Bluegrass music not only provides a bridge that allows the film to jump forward and backward in time, drawing stark contrasts in the character of Didier and Elise’s union (or lack thereof), but also echoes the structure of a traditional musical by providing an anchor for an outpouring of emotion.

The result is a film that not only mimics the ways in which we move through life simultaneously in the past and present, but a film that, overall, feels very deeply. Perhaps one of the strongest aspects of the film is that we understand every decision, outburst, and even word that each character makes, regardless of whether that decision is any good or even when what they say manufactures a great divide from how they really feel. We see these characters at their very best and their very worst, at their closest and most distant. As Didier and Elise’s relationship struggles under the weight of a dying daughter, the movie is pregnant with various possibilities about what direction(s) their union could go, always one step ahead but never leaving its audience out in the cold.

The Broken Circle Breakdown was a hit in Europe last year, and its soundtrack went several-times platinum, introducing many European audiences to a genre of American music that had only resided previously amongst select pockets and within subcultures, like the rural Flanders in which the film takes place. The film focuses rather insularly on the life developed and shared between Didier and Elise – we know very little about their pasts, or even Didier’s bandmates. Yet this is a uniquely global film about a specifically American form of musical expression that takes authentic root in the modest lives of a few Belgian musicians (all of their songs are performed in English). This trans-Atlantic depiction of bluegrass also gives the film some fascinating thematic weight: Didier adores American culture, specifically from the South, but he struggles with the conservatism emerging from those same regions that birthed bluegrass, specifically the Bush administration’s curb on stem-cell research in light of his daughter’s illness. This is hardly just a moment that contextualizes the film within recent political history – it’s used to paint Didier’s emotional disintegration.

As is probably inevitable in a movie that gives bluegrass a Flemish tongue, The Broken Circle Breakdown is both familiar and inventive. It’s a melodrama that has moments of incredible subtlety, a musical that realistically paints a portrait of how music operates in the daily lives of people who love it, and a film that avoids cliché while drawing apt comparisons to other non-mainstream movies depicting tumultuous relationships.

But the film does have a few moments that ring false. One of the initial musical numbers, for instance, is realized with a quickly panning camera and lightning-paced editing – techniques inherited from MTV as requisite for the moving-image depiction of music. It feels glaringly inauthentic, as if Van Groeningen feels he has to work at convincing us that the fantastic music is important to these characters rather than simply let the music help tell the story. For a movie this devoted to exploring raw emotions, raw relationships, and raw music, I wish the patience and grace of the director’s techniques in the film’s strongest non-musical moments were matched in his depictions of the amazing music on display.

The Upside: A beautiful and heartbreaking story about a couple whose love is challenged by the trials of life, realized by two strong leading performances at its center and amazing music throughout

The Downside: Some moments of forced over-direction unnecessary in a movie where the cup is already this full

On the Side: The Broken Circle Breakdown is Belgium’s official entry to compete for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.

The Broken Circle Breakdown opens today in NYC and is set to roll out in other cities.