Title: The Broken Circle Breakdown
Reviewed for Shockya by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com
Director: Felix Van Groeningen
Screenwriter: Carl Joos, Felix Van Groeningen
Cast: Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse, Geert Van Rampelberg, Nils De Caster, Robbie Cleiren, Bert Huysentruyt, Jan Bijvoet
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 10/3/13
Opens: November 1, 2013
Belgium’s candidate for the Foreign Language Oscar is not only a gem from that small country but is the most powerful film of the year to date. A shattering tale of how the death of a six-year-old daughter from cancer leads to a marital Armageddon is intense, riveting, absorbing, engaging in every frame. What’s more “The Broken Circle Breakdown” (forget the awkward title) is loaded with moments of passion, humor, and an array of the best bluegrass music heard on the screen since Kentucky-born Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys captured the interest of fans of Americana in song during Monroe’s seventy years’ career as a mandolin player and creator of an ensemble that had a major revival during the 1960’s boom in folk music.
Felix Van Groeningen’s film, stunningly adapted for the big screen from a stage play by Johan Heldenbergh (a lead performer in the film) and Mieke Dobbels is crammed with enough music to convince an audience that “Belgian bluegrass” is in no way on oxymoron.
The film brings to mind Ingmar Bergman’s six-episode TV series in 1973 that focuses on ten years of a marriage between one Marianne and one Johan. If a message can be culled from both the Bergman and the Groeningen it’s the adage that marriage requires work. When two people join in matrimony, they are not one person. The woman and the man remain different people whose beliefs and ways of coping with life’s sorrows and joys can never be entirely coincident. With a script from the director and Carl Joos, the film hones in on a couple living in Ghent, Belgium speaking in Flemish, also called Belgian Dutch, and singing now and then in perfectly-accented English. The story of Elise Vandevelde (Veerle Baetens) and her lover and husband Didier Bontinck (Johan Heldenbergh) is one filled, as is most marriages with great joy and heartbreaking sadness.
Van Groeningen wisely chooses to abandon straight chronology, as editor Nico Leunen shifts seamless to illustrate moments of passion juxtaposed with days of unrelenting grief as six-year-old Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), seen with thinning hair and ultimately bald, is destined to die of cancer. What may be unusual in her parents’ distress is that both Elise and Didier become equally unmoored by the tragedy, though when Elise first announced her pregnancy, Didier was enraged, accusing Elise of tricking him, affirming that having a child was the furthest thing from his mind.
The fairly graphic sexual scenes that accompany their first years together give way to furious arguments, as each blames the other for their daughter’s cancer. She smoked and drank during the first months of pregnancy, allegedly before she knew about her condition. He had cancer in his family. Though they continue to sing together despite the hostility, the marriage is breaking apart and then some.
One can but wonder whether the five thousand voters in the Academy will be encouraged by Didier’s statement that America is his favorite country, a place where the sky’s the limit and anyone with the right attitude can rise to the heavens. (Apparently he had not heard Robert Reich’s points of view in this year’s terrific documentary “Inequality for All.”) Nor does it hurt that Didier is a fan of Elvis Presley and that his wife would change her name from Elise to Alabama—“just like the Indians did whenever they felt like.”
In a tonal deviation that may dismay some in the audience but which is true to Didier’s atheism is his rant in front of an audience against George W. Bush who, in a veto speech, put a curb on embryonic stem cells. If anyone could have predicted that Elise and Didier’s marriage (performed jokingly by a minister who imitates Elvis) would not last, it is that Elise, who runs a tattoo parlor, is devout enough to believe that her daughter has become a star in the heavens, while Didier is a romantic realist who attacks even God in an electrifying monologue.
Acting is tops all around with particular kudos to Nell Cattrysse in the role of six-year-old Maybelle, a young woman who presumably agreed to have her head shaved and allow tubes to be attached to various parts of her small body. As Elise, Veerle Baetens, who formed her own band in Belgium last year, is a sensation, doing her own singing as does Johan Heldenbergh. Other band members harmonize delightfully.
Unrated. 110 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A
Technical – A
Overall – A-