Cultural appropriation. Heartbreak. Belgium. Amerophilia. Excellent music. I know what you're thinking: Van Damme, duh.
In The Broken Circle Breakdown there isn't a martial artist to be found, and that's for the best. Belgium's foreign language submission into the 2014 Academy Awards proves hard to watch, but worth it all the same. If we were given just the story, which is predictably doomed, it would be impossible to get through. A couple meets, falls in love, has a child, said child falls ill, life crumbles. You've seen this before; even while watching the movie, you know it's all familiar ground. There are no surprises, and such well-worn territory can feel like lazy writing.
But a good story is in the telling. That's where The Broken Circle Breakdown soars. Bits and pieces of the larger narrative come across in two halves bearing stark chronological contrast. Throughout the first half, the couple's difficulty in dealing with their daughter's illness is juxtaposed with flashbacks of their happiness and hopefulness in bringing her into the world and raising her. The second part tells of the relationship's beginning and end, side by side. With no transitions to tell you that you're flashing back, each jump between timelines feels like a punch in the gut. Happy turns to tragic in no time at all, leaving you emotionally winded. This alone gives the film power, but for those who aren't into emotional masochism, don't worry, there's more.
Though only three characters populate the film, they carry it deftly. The father, Didier (Johan Heldenberg, who also wrote the original play) is a bearded and lurching atheist Amerophile, banjo-player and bluegrass lover. The mother, Elise (Veerle Baetens), is a tattooed realist, mildly religious, wild gal with a voice made for country tunes. Nell Cattrysse plays the child, Maybelle, with the saintliest innocence you've ever seen. She's so endearing that you want more than anything for her poor, confused parents to find a way to navigate the situation, to find the words to comfort her, despite their own world-worn beliefs.
Occasionally, the writing gets a little overwrought in the dialogue. Conversations and screaming matches show the actors just repeating the same thing at each other, but louder each time. In a couple of scenes, the father goes off on tirades that feel out of place and jar you away from the story. It feels like the writers are just having themselves a little monologue while we wait for the story to continue.
In the end, those flaws don't matter much. The film really shines in the music. The flavor of bluegrass is subtly interspersed throughout, leading our emotions from one point to the next and punctuating the tragedy. The driving and jamming tunes give O Brother, Where Art Thou? a run for its money and, in terms of the performances in the film, the couple has more chemistry than Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix could ever dream possible. Each time Elise and Didier show up on stage together, backed by their merry band, you want them to stay up there where it's light and easy, safe in song.
As in the best tragic tales, there is a speck of brightness. When struggling to give hope to Maybelle, Didier explains starlight: It doesn't matter that the star is dead, its light moves on forever, and although you can't keep it, you can see it in the sky as a reminder. The story of Didier and Elise points to the ways people find hope in the darkest times. Because really, if you're shuffling off this mortal coil, you might as well be shuffling to some damn good music.
The Broken Circle Breakdown screens at the Roxy Theater Fri., Jan. 10–Sun., Jan. 12 and Fri., Jan 17–Sun., Jan. 19 at 7:15 and 9:15 PM.