Bluegrass in Belgium

in 25th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Karsten Kastelan

There might be no cynicism in country music, as Peter Bogdanovich had one of his characters proclaim in The Thing Called Love, but there sure is a hell of a lot of pain, suffering and heartache. And love of course, because real tragedy can only exist when you lose something or someone you love dearly.

The Broken Circle Breakdown quickly starts us off on such a course, as it wastes no time to introduce us to Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and Elise (Veerle Baetens) in what will become a turning point in their lives. They have come to the hospital with their daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), just to find out that the 6-year-old has cancer.

From there, director Felix Van Groeningen takes us on a ride throughout the story of these two very different people, who once met, fell in love, had a child and then saw all that was good in their lives vanish before their eyes.

He is a farmer who loves bluegrass music, drives a pickup-truck and is enamored by the United States of America — or at least the idea of the land of free, home of the brave. She is a tattoo-artist who covers the names of her exes up with a wild array of imagery; deeply spiritual and with a wild streak.

What divides them is not important, since Didier and Elise are clearly made for each other. She becomes a singer in his bluegrass-band and while he is averse of getting a tattoo himself, Elise simply grabs the keys to his car, drives off and returns it later with a cattle skull painted across the hood.

If this sounds a little too cute to be true — it is. Or it would be, if Van Groeningen hadn’t chosen to tell the story in a decidedly non-linear fashion: we often have to wonder for a moment or two where in the chronology he has taken us. This is not due to shoddy storytelling, as so often the case, but to a conscious effort — and it allows us to experience seemingly random, but very poignant moments in the lives of these two lovers; drawing us deeper into a story that we increasingly care for and identify with.

Van Groeningen also doesn’t shy away from taking on more serious subjects rarely dealt with in such a clear and concise fashion: while tragedy befalls these two people in a tiny country called Belgium, the United States of America is faced with the horrors of 9-11. Seen on a television set in the background, this — at first — seems to be an odd addition, but when footage of President George W. Bush condemning stem-cell research at a news-conference pops up later in the film, we suddenly realize where both intersect. While Didier’s life turns into a pit of misery in the foreground, the country of his dreams enters a dark chapter in its history, in which scientific progress will be denied in the name of faith — progress that, if not hindered, might have yielded the scientific breakthrough Maybelle so desperately needs.

While Didier rages against religion, Elise clings to her faith — not faith in the sense traditionally prescribed by church doctrine, but the undying hope that Maybelle’s soul will never die. Her way to deal with her lot is no less self-destructive than her husband’s, but it is not fueled by anger.Instead, she yearns for all that is lost and finds comfort in an unrealistic certainty that it simply cannot be gone forever.

The Broken Circle Breakdown manages to convey all this without being preachy or overtly intellectualizing its themes. One even has the slight suspicion that a version of the same story told in a more linear fashion would resemble a melodrama for television — albeit a superbly acted and directed one.

Van Groeningen does nothing to disabuse us of that notion. With its two wonderful leads, a story full of love, heartache and pain and a pleasant look that makes the Belgian countryside resemble Anyplace-USA, but not overtly so, the film hits all the right notes, does not shy away from raw emotion and makes good use of its own poetry, iconography and soundtrack.

But it is nearly impossible to overstate the emotional impact of this beautiful country song of a film has — and that, despite the musical elements being strongly represented, it is not a film about country music at all.

The Broken Circle Breakdownis a film about all the things in life that make people want to write beautifully sad songs or — if not blessed with the talent or ambition to do so — at least cry a few tears when a song like that unexpectedly plays on the radio.

Edited by Steven Rea