Written and directed by Felix Van Groeningen
Some things are universal, crossing moral or literal boundaries. Some situations are, when described, so inherently sad that it’s hard not to well up with tears, just as some music is so joyous and hopeful that it’s hard not to react positively no matter where you’re from. Such is the power and the curse of The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium’s entry for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar that embraces Americana so wholeheartedly and spurns it in equal turn, and presents a scenario so nakedly emotional and manipulative that responding with an outpouring of emotion is almost too easy. This film gets an A for effort, but it tries too hard to get a common enough response.
The basic story is about how Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and Elise (Veerle Baetens) meet in 1999—he a bluegrass singer, she a tattoo artist and aficionado—and where the next seven years of their relationship takes them. Writer-director Felix Van Groeningen plays around with time, beginning the film in 2006, as Didier and Elise tend to their cancer-stricken daughter, then rewinds to 1999, and jumps all around in the next 2 hours. What unites Didier and Elise is what divides them: his love for bluegrass music and the band in which he performs. After a time, she joins the group as one of its singers, even after they have their daughter and get married. The cancer that invades their child’s body is a key factor in what drives them further apart, as would be expected. One tragedy begets another, and on and on until the end credits.
The temporal shifts, one of the film’s most memorable creative choices, only serve to mute any emotional impact there may be in this story. It’s sad to hear or read about a young couple seemingly in love who are forced to suffer through a terrible, massive heartbreak. The way Van Groeningen, though, chooses to tell this story, scattering the scenes like pieces of trash blown around by the wind is pointless. Not that every non-chronological story is automatically a creative failure or frustration, but it would be exceedingly simple to summarize in a few short sentences exactly what happens in this movie. If anything, Van Groeningen’s choice to switch up the timeline only emphasizes how meager the story is. Another baffling choice is the infrequent cameos of a sort from former U.S. President George W. Bush. Both times, he shows up in archival news conference footage, first in his address on the night of the 9/11 attacks, then after vetoing a stem-cell research bill. The latter decision ties mildly into the actual story, but the former serves no purpose at all. We’ve reached a point in popular culture where criticizing Bush for his policies is no longer tantamount to some foolish accusation of treason (and Van Groeningen does a good job of using the stem-cell research veto as a reminder of how long it’s been since that was the hot topic in American politics), but using the footage of Bush in general stands out like a sore thumb. Didier’s love for America, unsurprisingly, doesn’t extend to the second Bush presidency, but before the events of 9/11—which otherwise do not impact the characters—politics aren’t on his mind. It just makes no sense to include these historical events, especially since they’re clearly used as more than just markers of time.
Heldenbergh and Baetens, aside from these script issues, are both quite good and fiercely committed throughout. (The bluegrass music is only so enjoyable to hear and bask in because of their voices, which transition smoothly from speaking in a foreign tongue to singing in unaccented English.) And Van Groeningen films The Broken Circle Breakdown with skill, his talents behind the camera better utilized than those with the pen or computer. Strangely, even as the amount of emotional strata piles up, he keeps the camera a bit distant, sometimes presenting Didier and Elise as a displaced iconic American couple in love, as in an early shot of Elise in an American flag bikini straddling his red pickup truck. The images are striking, even if they lack affect.
If nothing else, The Broken Circle Breakdown is rhythmically memorable and exciting, proving once more that bluegrass is as lively and vibrant a musical genre as anything that may sound more modern and current. The story surrounding the soundtrack is so direct and simple that its writer tries very hard to shake things up almost literally, spreading the scenes throughout without a care for straight-ahead chronology. That, plus the invocation of American policy in the 2000s, is a mild distraction that never works so fully to fool the audience. The music that the lead couple in The Broken Circle Breakdown is often beautiful and sweet, wringing more emotion in these moments than from any use of the spoken word.
— Josh Spiegel