Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium’s official Oscar submission should make the short list. It’s both a feel-good film and a wrenching drama with a glorious cast, and like its wonderful soundtrack it will play in your mind after you leave the theatre.
Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) are a golden couple. They meet, fall in love and build a perfect world around Didier’s Bluegrass band. Life exacts a terrible price. Their winsome daughter Maybelle struggles with Leukemia and dies, sending their life against the shoals. But director Felix Van Groeningen leavens this downward spiral with Bluegrass classics and newer tunes.
Lacing his drama with spicy scenes and warm humor, and weaving from past to present, he allows the pleasures of their new love to guide the audience through what would otherwise be an unbearably dark second act.
Van Groeningen fills the films with sensual expressive details. When Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier make love in a truck, her upside-down toes splay against the window, bouncing with each gleeful thrust. What an intimate detail. How erotic.
Rarely has budding romance been portrayed with such earthy joy. The couple, imperfect by Hollywood’s six packed and surgically assisted standards, enchant, gap teeth and all. They leap off the screen and call to us. We want everything to end well.
Van Groeningen and tattoo artist Marie Brabant paint a version of the story across Elise’s comely body. Undressing for Didier, she reveals wings on her shoulder blades. An artfully placed bow at the top of her ass makes her a gift box of sexual delight to be unwrapped by her toothy admirer. Elise, who has tatooed over the names of her past lovers, plights her troth to Didier by writing his name across her belly, and when she leaves him, we watch her self tattoo all evidence of his name away.
They meet when he wanders into her Tattoo parlor and invites her to a club to watch a bluegrass band. The sequence where she watches him onstage, and he, surprised to see her in the audience, begins to sing to her alone, is a primer on how to shoot romance.
Visiting his farm, where dudely Didier parades around like an American rancher, is a blast. Elise gets it. Didier is a neo-American. They ride around on his stallion, names Earl for Bluegrass icon Earl Scruggs; after making love, they lie by the fire and sing.
Love struck Elise vamps him by writhing on the top of his truck in a red, white an blue bikini and tats, like a horny car-washing sorority girl. Soon Elise is a welcome member of the band. Strutting onstage as a pint size country and western singer, her bright eyes flashing, she entrances Didier and the audience. Frisky Bertens, who has a background in musical comedy, grabs the camera and won’t let go, as her red lips bite off the country and western lyrics.
Didier apes Johnny Cash and proposes to Elise on stage. A lot of their most important moments happen onstage, moments no doubt transferred from the original stage version of the story.
They create the enchanting Maybelle (then 5-year old Nell Cattrysse), named for the Carter Family matriarch. When first we meet the seven-yaer old, she’s undergoing radiation treatment for childhood leucemia. She’s sent home to see if the radiation did the trick.
The fierce little girl is alternatingly brave and philosophical. Balding and head scarfed she celibrates her birthday, serenaded by the goony members of her parent’s band, who truck across the screen like dancers in a Betty Boop cartoon. Back at the ward, Maybelle sports a half-finished tiger face paint, lovingly applied by Elise. The doctor teases her, and Maybelle growls fiercesomely. So much for cheap sentiment. We’re challenged to feel bad.
Eschewing melodramatics, Van Groeningen’s achieved true Melos-Drama, casting music as another character in the ensemble.
Leads Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens can carry the scenes on body language alone. Their faces, deep with emotion, are allowed the moving grace of silent film actors. The film also retains stunning dialogue. The scene where Elise announces she’s pregnant has the backlash of a snake’s tail, Didier falls silent, mixed emotions muddy his face, but that’s nothing to the layers of emotion Elise displays before they make up.
Gentle, passionate Didier is uncomfortable playing “god” for a child, but Elise, who’s emotional truth is always on the boil, steamrolls him. His love for her becomes his church, he worships her and Maybelle. Losing them is like losing faith a second time.
A tour de force version of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” sung by the duo onstage as an elegy to the death of their daughter and their marriage, grabs your heart but leaves no traces of bathos.
Heldenbergh learned banjo, guitar and mandolin for his leading role in the play, where he was backed by the Cover-Ups of Alabama. Baetens loosened up her Musical Comedy technique to find an organic style. Music director Bjorn Eriksson guided their riveting performances.
When Felix Van Groeningen originally saw the stage play, written and starring Johan Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels, he wept. Van Greoningen wisely stepped back, letting Van Groeningen and co-writer Carl Joos open up the story. It’s a script that kept all the emotional impact of the play, adding colors and sensual vision and opening out the back-story.
It’s a portrait of love and loss, and the different ways people handle loss. Fragile Elise takes comfort from a persistant crow, who she believes is Maybelle trying to communicate. Staunch atheist Didier, who learned that Santa and God didn’t exist at the same time, rails at the anti-science climate of born-agains like G.W Bush, who blocked valuable Cell Stem research in 2001-and 2006. Desperate Elise reminds him that the research is available in Belgium. The concert scene where Didier harangues the audience is a jaw-dropping moment of political rage, in keeping with writer Heldenbergh’s engagée playwriting.
Felix Van Groeningen and long-time collaborator editor Nico Leunen found an intuitive flow to his time-hopping (a style that Johan Heldenbergh dubbed “riding the roller coaster of love”.)
Van Groeningen has an inspired production team. Art director Kurt Rigolle establishes the radiant world of their shared farm, warm with homey details, curates the arcane tools of Elise’s tattoo parlor and captures the frosty impersonal purgatory of ambulances and oncology wards. DP Ruben Impens lingers over the details with his silken camera. Costume designer Ann Lauwerys adds witty, indelible costumes. Producers Dirk Impens, Arnold Heslenfeld, Laurette Schillings, Frans van Gestel, Rudy Verzyck midwifed an emotionally satisfying journey that should have sturdy International legs.