“Will the circle be unbroken, by and by, Lord, by and by? / There’s a better home a-waitin’, in the sky, Lord, in the sky …”
Five men strike up their acoustic stringed instruments — banjo, fiddle, bass, mandolin and guitar — and sing in vocal harmony into the microphone, sing to us, the viewers, and we begin to wonder: Is this a concert film? Is it a set piece, like a song in a musical? Or are they commenting on the plot, like some modern Greek chorus? But our thoughts are soon drawn into the rhythm of the bluegrass music, seduced by the repetition of the refrain: “… a better home a-waitin’ in the sky”. And no sooner than it dawns on us that they are singing about death, the scene segues into a hospital room, and a man and a woman are lovingly trying to soothe the pain of their little girl as a doctor sticks a needle into her tiny body. The doctor has bad news. We feel the tension between the couple as the wife admonishes her bearded husband — the lead singer and banjo player in the song we just heard — to do their crying at home away from the girl and to think positively. Back at home, he points his finger like a fake gun at little Maybelle: “We’re gonna shoot it dead tomorrow”, he promises. “Shoot the cancer dead”, she replies.
The opening scene of The Broken Circle Breakdown takes place in Ghent, Flemish Belgium, in June 2006, we learn. And suddenly it jumps back to seven years earlier, as Didier first seduces Elise in his caravan, telling her about the music he loves and caressing the tattoos on her naked body. Director Felix van Groeningen (with the help of brilliant editor Nico Leunen) skilfully constructs a pattern in sorting out the bits and pieces of this story of love and sorrow by carrying it back and forward in time, shifting between gleeful bliss and deep-felt tragedy, between bitter accusations and intimate harmony, between Elise’ optimistic faith and Didier’s fanatical outbursts as he rants and raves uncontrollably in the middle of a concert against all religion and against George W. Bush’s rejection of embryonic stem-cell research that might have saved the life of little Maybelle. Van Groeningen succeeds in preventing the film from turning into a maudlin tearjerker — and the tears do flow in this movie — by making the emotions entirely believable, and he succeeds largely thanks to the stellar performances of Johan Heldenbergh (the co-author of the original play on which the film is based) as Didier and Veerle Baetens as tattoo shop owner Elise, both of whom also lend their own voices to the many fine bluegrass numbers.
And the songs are indeed the heart of the movie. Bjorn Eriksson has composed the film’s original music and arranged and played the traditional bluegrass songs with the BCB Band, together with additional musicians and background singers. When Didier and Elise alternately sing to each other “If I needed you, would you come to me…?” at a time when they have reached the deepest point in their relationship and Elise has covered over Didier’s name with another tattoo and changed her own name to Alabama, the duet recalls the intimacy of the love they once shared, and we see the pain and the hope of renewed love in their faces. Or when the band members sing “Go to sleep, you little baby” at the rain-drenched funeral of Maybelle or when they break out in a rousing instrumental tune at the film’s final moment of tragedy, it has a life-affirming impulse that only music can give. The circle of life breaks down and yet it somehow remains unbroken.
© FIPRESCI 2013