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The Broken Circle Breakdown

November 16, 2013
The Broken Circle Breakdown

I once saw Lyle Lovett draw this distinction during a break in one of his concerts: “In a country song, sad things can happen; in a bluegrass song, bad things can happen.” Indeed, bad things happen in The Broken Circle Breakdown, Felix Van Groeningen’s heartbreaking tale of the marriage between two Belgian bluegrass players.

And of all the bad things in the world, there’s little worse than losing a child. Almost as soon as we meet Didier Bontinck (Johan Heldenbergh) and Elise Vandevelde (Veerle Baetens) we see their daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), in a pediatric oncology clinic, raptly watching Mega Mindy as her parents wait to hear whether Captain Chemo is winning her fight.

The film jumps back and forth across Elise and Didier’s relationship. He says he plays the banjo because its snarl reminds him of the punk rock he used to play. She says the tattoos she creates aren’t really permanent, since they can always be modified or covered up, illustrating with the former names of her former boyfriends across her body. Elise still acts like superficial cover can erase a past where things went wrong; Didier still carries the impulsive anger of his past punk years.

Van Groeningen slowly builds up their history: Didier’s enchantment at Elise’s designs; Elise’s amazement seeing Didier play and sing this music she’d never heard before. An unexpected pregnancy motivates Didier to finally remodel the old brick farmhouse he’d been poking at while they lived in a caravan parked outside. We are whipsawed from their joy to their pain, each time filling in just what we need to know about the past to make the present really sting.

When the best of Flemish medicine eventually fails, the jumps through time get even more erratic. We dig further into the past, and glimpse forward to a future that is somehow worse than watching the dirt land on an impossibly small white casket. The child that anchored this family is gone, and without her to hold onto the parents spin off in opposite directions, out into the darkness.

And through it all, there is the music. Coordinated by Bjorn Eriksson, the BCB Band plays some fine bluegrass. Baetens, in particular, slips into an uncanny Appalachian twang at the drop of a cowboy hat; hearing her sing you’d never guess she spends the rest of her time speaking Flemish.

There seem to be strong parallels with Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. Like that film — and like a bluegrass song — The Broken Circle Breakdown has moments of real joy, but always with at least a tinge of sadness in the background. And though on some level you know that it’s not going to end very happily, you hope to the last scene that something will finally resolve on anything but another minor chord.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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