Director: Felix van Groeningen
Cast: Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse
Running Time: 111 mins
Release Date: November 8th
Felix van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown — an adaptation of a stage play written by lead actor Johan Heldenbergh — has gone down so well in his native Belgium that it has been selected as the country’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category at next year’s Oscars. And with this bittersweet tale of love and loss, the director is sure to give the Academy plenty to think about when it comes to casting their ballots.
Wannabe cowboy Didier (Johan Heldenberg) has a fascination with all things American. He encounters tattoo artist and fellow free spirit Elise (Veerle Baetens) by chance, and the pair embark on a whirlwind romance. The lovebirds quickly become inseparable, Elise even joining Didier’s bluegrass band that entertains punters in local hostelries at the weekends.
Things take an unexpected turn when Elise falls pregnant. She and Didier embrace their new reality and soon daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) arrives, bringing them unbridled joy. But as parents they are hostages to fortune — and when the youngster is later diagnosed with cancer, their world is turned upside down. The intense pressure of caring for a seriously ill child exposes the fault lines in their relationship, and storm clouds begin to gather over paradise.
Van Groeningen tells the story in nonlinear fashion, taking us on a journey back and forward through time, a performance from Didier’s band usually signalling a break in chronology. That can be disorientating, even though it isn’t done in a postmodernist fashion. But as a device it works a treat, and when all of the pieces of the jigsaw come together that becomes abundantly clear.
Both Heldenbergh and Baetens deliver storming performances as the two leads. There is a chemistry between them that makes everything seem so natural — when a scene demands intimacy they manage to summon up so much that watching them feels intrusive, and when volatility is required they push each other right to the limit. The fairytale nature of their romance can feel nauseating at times, though that is no fault of the actors.
When things get tough Elise puts her trust in a higher power, which grates with Dider as an avid non-believer. He is prone to the occasional rant, and it sometimes feels like the audience is being preached to through the vehicle that is his character. Yet Didier is far from one-dimensional, and he appreciates just as well as Elise does that a person’s worldview cannot account for everything that life throws at them.
The Broken Circle Breakdown is no fairytale. Through the family’s struggles, questions are posed about fundamental issues such as faith, reason, difference, human agency, the loneliness of the self and whether or not it is possible to overcome the seeming futility of existence.
In this Oscar hopeful from the western European fedreral monarchy known as Belgium, Van Groeningen has produced a tender film about fragility that leaves its trace and is brimming with humanity. Neither feel-good nor depressing, The Broken Circle Breakdown circumvents easy classification in favour of something altogether more authentic. And the bluegrass tunes ain’t too bad either.