The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium’s official submission to the Foreign Language Oscars, is an ebullient, life-affirming movie about the most depressing subject imaginable: a couple dealing with the impending death of their young daughter. Director Felix Van Groeningen take us back and forth in time through the relationship between the tattoo artist Elise (a fantastic Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Jonah Heldenbergh), a banjo player for a local small-time bluegrass band. Elise and Didier make an unlikely couple: She’s blond and striking and several years younger than Didier, who is a shaggy, unkempt bear of a man who thinks America is the greatest place on Earth (“It’s a country of dreamers.”) Elise has spiritual faith and Didier is a vociferous atheist, but their personalities complement each other, their sex life could not be healthier, and their relationship is tender and honest and free, devoid of the cutesy cliches Hollywood pictures often resort to when portraying happy families.
After Elise, who turns out to have a lovely voice, joins Didier’s group, their gigs grow from local bars and pubs to small auditoriums and, eventually, large concert halls (the actors did their own singing). The songs, a combination of original compositions and country classics, are carefully integrated into the narrative, commenting on its themes and the interior lives of the characters (the film opens with the group performing Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, a Christian hymn made famous by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which you gradually start to realize is the movie’s mantra).
When Elise gets unexpectedly pregnant, Didier isn’t happy at first. But once their daughter Maybelle (played by the gifted 5-year-old Nell Cattrysse) starts to grow up, all his reservations melt away. The parents adore their child. They devote their lives to her. Then the girl is diagnosed with cancer: Doctors seem optimistic, but an endless series of chemo and radiation therapy treatments begin to take a toll on the marriage.
Like Blue Valentine, The Broken Circle Breakdown unfolds out of chronological order, juxtaposing a huge argument between Elise and Didier with the first time he walked into her tattoo parlor and the couple fell into instant love (the sudden shifts in time help to draw you into the picture, making you figure out what part of the story you’re watching). The movie, which covers a span of nearly a decade, makes some odd choices, such as a lingering shot of a TV news broadcast of President George W. Bush addressing the world after the 9/11 attacks — something that doesn’t pay off until much later, when Didier rails against the American government’s stance on stem cell research. In its final 10 minutes, the picture turns surreal and hallucinatory, and the effects are distracting: You can see what Van Groeningen is trying to do, but this is a case where less would have been better. Regardless, The Broken Circle Breakdown manages to pull off a small miracle, using joyous music and tenderness to tell a tragic story that moves you but doesn’t depress you. And the film’s final scene is a thing of true beauty — an outpouring of love and mourning and forgiveness expressed in a haunting, eloquent, soulful way.
Cast: Veerle Baetens, Jonah Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse.
Director: Felix Van Groeningen.
Screenwriters: Carl Joos Felix, Felix Van Groeningen. Based on the play by Jonah Heldenbergh.
Producer: Dirk Impens.
A Tribeca Films release. Running time: 111 minutes. In Flemish and English with English subtitles. Vulgar language, nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Miami Beach Cinematheque.