J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Broken Circle Breakdown: The Belgian Bluegrass Oscar Submission

He 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 Breakdown (trailer here), Belgium’s official foreign language Oscar submission, which opens today in New York.

As 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.”

Eventually, 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.

You 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.

Arguably, 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.

Van 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

Baetens 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.


The 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.

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