Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Broken Circle Breakdown: The Belgian Bluegrass Oscar Submission
has a lot of facial hair, she is covered in tattoos. They are Belgian, but old
time American roots music, particularly bluegrass, tells their painful
tale. There will be banjos and tears in
Felix van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle
official foreign language Oscar submission, which opens today in New York.
a single chap, Didier just puttered about his once grand country house when not
performing with his bluegrass band. That
was how he caught the eye of Elise, a tattoo artist with more personal ink than
the general population of San Quentin.
What starts out as a physical thing evolves into something musical when
she joins the band as a vocalist. While actress
Veerle Baetens’ voice is not showstopppingly powerful, she still sounds quite
haunting performing Elise’s old school standards, like “Wayfaring Stranger.”
Elise gets pregnant. After Didier’s
brief freak-out, they settle into an idyllic family life together, until five
year-old Maybelle is stricken with cancer.
Elise and Didier try to keep it together for her sake, but the wheels are
clearly coming off their relationship.
might think a family tragedy like Circle would
have no political axe to grind, but you would be wrong. Van Groeningen’s adaptation of lead actor
Johan Heldenbergh’s stage play retains his “reason vs. faith” themes,
presenting them in the most simplistic manner possible. Frankly, there is already widespread
confusion regarding the differences between adult, amniotic, pluripotent, and
the controversial embryonic stem cell treatments, but Circle does its best to muddy the waters even further.
a case could be made Didier’s foaming-at-the-mouth outbursts of aggressive
atheism undermine his character’s position, but that does not make them any
more pleasant to sit through. Indeed, his utter inability to offer his daughter
any form of spiritual reassurance is hard to buy. You just have to wonder why scene after scene
made it to the final cut. Then they
start singing and suddenly the film makes sense again.
Groeningen might only do one thing right throughout Circle, but he rather brilliantly uses song to express his
characters’ inner turmoil. When Didier
and Elise perform “If I Needed You,” it cuts to the bone. This could definitely be a case of the
soundtrack eclipsing the source film’s popularity, as it just so happened for O Brother Where Art Thou?
and Heldenbergh sound great together on the bandstand and are uncomfortably
real together, both in the throes of passion and when emotionally torturing
each other. Young Nell Cattrysse is also
quite compelling, giving some flesh-and-blood dimension to the ailing Maybelle.
music and fundamental drama of Circle are
so powerful, it is a shame the film has such an ADD compulsion to express a
wider macro-level significance. Van
Groeningen and Heldenbergh should have placed more trust in its micro
essence. When it consents to jerk tears,
it gets them flowing good, which is why it cannot be counted out in the foreign
language Oscar derby. The Broken Circle Breakdown is a messy
film, but it has its moments. Recommended
with reservations for hardcore fans of bluegrass and Flemish cinema, it opens
today in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.
Labels: Belgian Cinema, Bluegrass