Fragmented and raw, this wrenching drama from Belgian filmmaker Felix Van Groeningen is threaded together with an extraordinary collection of bluegrass tunes. Structured like a more like a song than a conventional narrative, “The Broken Circle Breakdown” loops through moments in time like verses returning to choruses in this ballad of a doomed couple in Ghent during the early 2000s – united by their love of music and torn apart by tragedy.
Dider (Johan Heldenbergh) is crazy about America. A former punk rocker who gravitated towards the banjo because of its “snarl,” he preaches the gospel of Bill Munroe and is madly in love with Elise (Veerle Baetens.) She’s a free-spirited tattoo artist with the voice of an angel and a pictorial autobiography covering just about every available inch of skin.
The first half of “The Broken Circle Breakdown” flits freely across the span of seven years, constantly coming back to the present for one crushing hospital visit after another, as their daughter Maybelle (adorable Nell Cattrysse) dies slowly of leukemia.
It was a beguiling romance, in happier times. With quick, elliptical shorthand Van Groeningen sketches the freewheeling abandon of musician culture. Dider and Elise whoop it up between gigs, eventually settling into a cozy domesticity after Maybelle’s unexpected arrival. There’s a richly detailed sense of life lived in these mercurial moments, aided greatly by the performers. Heldebergh, who looks sort of like if 1976 Kris Kristofferson starred in a Jim Henson biopic, gazes upon Elise with contagious adoration, and Baetens has a live-wire electricity that matures into fierce maternal protectiveness when time takes its toll.
Most couples don’t stay together after losing a child, and the second, more melodramatic half of “The Broken Circle Breakdown” charts the divergent paths of two people who just weren’t built to last. Dider’s didactic atheism didn’t seem like such a big deal in the old days, but as Elise yearns desperately for something to relieve her grief, his rigid, scientific intolerance is hardly a comfort.
Things fall apart, and even Dider’s love affair with America is sorely tested (as was a lot of ours) by the Bush administration’s policies. Handled somewhat inelegantly, the lumpy political subtext comes becomes text in a crushing, mid-concert meltdown during which Dider proves what anybody who watches Bill Maher already knows – atheists can be just as proselytizing and obnoxious as evangelicals.
Words increasingly get in the way, but music remains a precious release.The soundtrack, wonderfully performed by the actors, is a mix of traditional songs, originals and bluegrass arrangements of contemporary covers like Bruce Springsteen’s “Further On Up The Road.” In the film’s best sequence, a heartbreaking rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” is allowed to play out in its entirety, articulating all of Dider and Elise’s ache and longing in ways a conventionally scripted scene could never summon.
“The Broken Circle Breakdown” becomes a bit much in the final reel, piling on the misfortune and going slightly loopy with camera trickery. Yet the power of these songs holds it together, along with the film’s bone-deep understanding of music as the means with which these flawed, saddened people can reach for transcendence, attaining a measure of grace. However temporary it may be.