For the first hour, I thought that the competing emotional tones of falling in love (joy) and seeing your child battle cancer (sadness) would define The Broken Circle Breakdown. But, the second half digs so much deeper.
A farmer and a tattoo artist fall passionately in love and bond over the bluegrass music they start to perform together. That’s not extraordinary on the face of it, but they live in the countryside near Ghent, Belguim, which makes the genre a bit of a surprise.
Who knew the Dutch were so enamored with American music? Who knew these performers could master the form and draw viewers into the spell they cast on stage and off?
Johan Heldenbergh (who wrote the play the film is based on) and Veerle Baetens fully inhabit their roles and all that their characters represent. Didier embraces reason and rejects religion while Elise gravitates toward religion, symbolism, and even superstition.
This is not an insurmountable problem for the couple until their young daughter Maybelle (played by the remarkable five-year-old Nell Cattrysse) falls seriously ill. Then, it seems that the more Didier and Elise need one another the less they are able to connect much less to comfort.
Director Felix van Groeningen comments on the elliptical structure of the film, which differs in this way from the play, in promotional materials. “The structure of The Broken Circle Breakdown was created during editing. It was always the idea to cross-cut between different times of Didier and Elise’s life, but the concept of the script was different than it ended up being in the final film.”
He credits editor Nico Leunen as a magician with this type of storytelling by making possible and practical his preference for films that “are not plotted story wise but emotion wise.”
Clearly, his technique works well for me as I watched The Broken Circle Breakdown and found myself increasingly drawn into the vortex of Didier and Elise’s lives.
The title of the film is perfect, and the film is quite good. Otherwise, why would my own heart feel broken, too?