Dark As a Dungeon, by Josh Long
Belgium’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards is Felix van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown. Based on a play by Johan Heldenbergh, the film is a gripping melodrama, dealing with death, grief, faith, and commitment. Did I mention it’s set to a toe-tapping bluegrass score?
As the film unfolds we quickly realize that it is shot non-sequentially, so it takes some careful attention to understand where we are in the story. The two lovers Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh, the playwright responsible for the source material) have a daughter, who appears to be hospitalized – we soon realize that she has cancer. As the film bounces back and forth between plot segments, we see Didier and Elise’s first meeting, how they fell in love, their daughter Maybelle’s birth, and the grief and pain that comes with her illness. Didier is a singer in a bluegrass band (he is fascinated with America, and this fascination breeds his love for bluegrass). He turns Elise on to the music, and she soon joins the band as well. Musical performances and interludes punctuate the film, often with songs that lend particular meaning to a scene.
Bluegrass music originates in the Appalachian region of the US, and many of its songs focus on traditional Christian spirituality. The film’s own title borrows its name from the song “May the Circle Be Unbroken,” a song about meeting loved ones in heaven. The spiritual nature of these songs stands in contrast to Didier’s atheism. It is this atheism that increases his pain over his daughter’s illness, and causes a rift between him and Elise. He believes that if Maybelle dies, she is lost forever, he will never see her again. But Elise will not accept this idea – and it breeds conflict between them. The conflict is so strong, that Didier’s fury even bubbles up into ranting on stage at one of their performances. There is a sad irony to seeing the band sing about a “savior,” and immediately afterward seeing Didier rail against religion.
The film should be congratulated in its subtle handling of this “reason vs. religion” issue. It would be easy for a filmmaker to slip to one side or the other and demonize the opposing view. But The Broken Circle Breakdown rides a fine line in between. Didier’s invectives are not meant to be seen as the filmmaker’s; they are the angry cries of a man desperate to find someone to blame for his personal tragedies. Elise’s timid spirituality is never seen as the answer to Didier’s questions, but instead as a serious counterpoint.
The non-linear editing may be troublesome to some viewers, but I found it very effective. The writers (and editors) know the best point to jump back into Didier and Elise’s past to have the most emotional effect. Similarly the film uses this same technique to foreshadow the film’s climax and finale. The story of Maybelle’s illness comes to us through bits and pieces, and allows the kind of emotional connection to the character that helps us feel the tragedy.
Since the bluegrass music plays such a major part in the film, it should be noted that the music is very good. Americans may doubt that a group of Belgians can emulate the sound and soul of Appalachian music, but rest assured that this band knows what they’re doing. They’re catchy, or soulful, as the mood dictates. And the songs never come at inappropriate moments. Even in the film’s tearjerker finale, the music accentuates the emotional tone, always buttressing the film’s message. Heldenbergh learned to play the banjo as part of the stage show, and his talent is in the spotlight here, along with excellent vocal work by the entire band. Both Heldenbergh and Baetens did their own singing.
The Broken Circle Breakdown is melodrama, and as such, many viewers are bound to find it quite depressing. Still, there are glimmers of hope. The music that fills these characters’ lives also adds hope and gives perspective to tragic situations. As the film’s titular song suggests, there may be a better home waiting for these beleaguered characters, by and by.