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The Broken Circle Breakdown ruminates on euphoric love, marriage, family, illness, opposing parenting styles, the separation of church and state, and faith—with an O Brother, Where Art Thou?’s worth of bluegrass weaved within. Tackling such a mother lode of the human experience is ambitious; successfully doing so is tough. (Just ask Terrence Malick, who may advise skipping the dinosaurs.)
Yet director Felix Van Groeningen and Carl Joos’ adaptation of the all-encompassing play of the same name transfers masterfully to film. The ultimately tragic story’s integration of bluegrass is inspired, and viewers who are vulnerable to its ache may feel teary within the film’s opening scene of a band performing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” (Clearly the source of the work’s title.)
The band offers gorgeous harmonies, but its lead singer is Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), who cryptically invites Elise (Veerle Baetens)—the lovely, heavily inked owner of a tattoo shop—to what ends up being their first date, telling her only that there’s a good band playing and not that he’s in it. They quickly fall in love and marry, settling into Didier’s ramshackle home in rural Ghent. The couple have a daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), who is diagnosed with cancer around the time most kids are starting kindergarten.
Broken Circle is stitched together (500) Days of Summer–style, so early on we see Maybelle in the hospital (a child with only half her hair is an image that’s hard to forget), and the scene where Didier and Elise first meet occurs nearly at the end. The nonlinear storytelling does not make the film any less comprehensible, but instead gives the audience breaks from the wrenching aspects of the plot. (Which itself recalls 2011’s Declaration of War.)
The film is Belgium’s entry for consideration in Oscar’s Best Foreign Film category, and its lushness and verisimilitude make it deserving. Didier and Elise perform often, and the actors imbue their moments on stage with the ecstasy and passion of June and Johnny. (Both did their own singing.) You’ll stay through the credits just to hear more.
The bluegrass angle implies music’s ability to heal, but the larger message is the increasing rift that so often drives couples apart while they’re grieving. And here’s where faith comes in: Elise is willing to let Maybelle believe in the heavens and life after death, while Didier is such a staunch atheist that he suddenly unleashes a rant onstage after seeing a speech from then-President George W. Bush disapproving stem-cell research that could help his daughter.
To a shocked audience and a shrinking Elise, all there to have a good time, Didier yells, “Yahweh, whom 80 percent of the world believes in, is by far the most evil person in literature!”
There is more mourning to come, a plot continuance that may sink many other films, coming across as melodrama. But it feels true and heartbreaking, and emphasizes two evocative ideas that, depending on your perspective, call out the loudest: Grief will rear its head how it wants, when it wants. And there are no atheists in foxholes.