The Broken Circle Breakdown
Opens Fri., Nov. 22 at Varsity. Not rated. 110 minutes.
If there really are bluegrass bands in Belgium, their stories are unlikely to be as eventful as this one. And the ups and downs of any given marriage are unlikely to be as tuneful as the saga of Didier and Elise. What they achieve and endure over a half-dozen years is packed with romance, music, and tragedy—as if distilled from a dozen Appalachian folk songs. There’s something both melodramatic and archetypical about this unwieldy tearjerker, which originated as a musical stage show co-written by and also starring Johan Heldenbergh as Didier.
The movie begins with a pure, frontal Carter Family blast of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” This isn’t realism, but something heightened by the music, like a church service. Here I’ll note that Heldenbergh does his own singing, most of the band is real, and the astonishing Veerle Baetens lends her real voice to Elise’s singing, too. An impetuous tattoo artist, Elise falls instantly for the calm, ursine Didier, moves to his farm (he’s a Flemish “kuu-boy”), and soon joins his band. Baetens has sung in Belgian stage roles, and obviously studied hard to get that Partonesque twang in her voice. This is a band you would pay to see on tour.
Director Felix van Groeningen has given a strenuously elliptical edit to the originally straightforward stage tale, also freighting it with camera effects. This can be jarring, as cheerful campfire sing-alongs give way to teary hospital scenes years later; then we loop back to how Elise and Didier first met, the subsequent birth of a child, an ambulance speeding ominously through the rain, etc. As the movie wears on none too subtlely, the music darkens from giddy love songs to aching ballads. The effect is a bit like Once, if that musical couple had stayed together for the long, difficult business of maintaining a marriage. And while Elise and Didier have a close emotional harmony on stage, he’s a bit of an atheist crank. She in turn has a dark kind of faith, a belief that God takes away as much as He grants. “It was too wonderful to be true,” says Elise of their early marriage. “Life isn’t that generous. It betrays you.”
That bleak assessment keeps Broken Circle from being just another contrived, jolly songfest for the holidays. Its clichés have been weirdly and sometimes compellingly translated—and mistranslated—into another culture. Why are these Belgians so drawn to the doleful spirituals and hymns of Appalachia? Both are small regions accustomed to hardship, squeezed by history, ghost-haunted and sad. And in response, what can you do but sing?