Broken Circle Breakdown overstrains for dramatic effect
We first meet Elise (Veerle Baetens) and her husband, Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) in a dramatic moment, tending to their sweet, sick daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) in a hospital. Just six years old, Maybelle is battling cancer and Didier and Elise are enduring a trial no parent should know.
The next time we see the two adults, we’re actually witnessing the first time Didier encountered Elise, about seven years earlier. He’s a boho Bluegrass banjoer outside Ghent, and she’s a tattooed wild girl who hook up, both intimately and as performers in his band. As time will continue to shuffle back and forth in Belgian director Feliz Van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown, audience attention will continually pivot back and forth between happy, innocent days and sadder, more recent times in their lives, with levels of blame and guilt tossed around and around…and around. It’s that last “around” that eventually makes what could have been an incisive, realistic look at life’s ebb and flow become an incredibly well-acted but overwrought exercise in the maudlin.
Melding Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road with Todd Field’s In the Bedroom, Breakdown, Belgium’s official entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film this year, continually flutters back and forth between Didier and Elise’s less complicated early days of love and their harrowing lives connected by Maybelle (who herself cam e to the couple as a welcome but unplanned surprise). Their later experiences cause the couple – and we the audience, who watch these scenes along with them but experience them for the first time – to reflect on happier times with a bittersweet resolve. It’s a choice that Van Groeningen and Carl Joos, who adapted this screenplay from a stage work entitled The Broken Circle Breakdown Featuring the Cover-Ups of Alabama, written by Mieke Dobbels and none other than Heldenbergh himself, employ with diminishing returns, especially as the film approaches its halfway point. Climactic events occur so early that the emotional mud Didier and Elise keep slinging at each other feels redundant, and the extra trips the film takes back to its happy days bear no new fruit, only to feel punishing. Breakdown’s repetitive structure, bookended by a harrowing start and end, feels too hollow for a long stretch at the center, despite emotionally naked and honest performances from its two leads.
And yet those leads make the movie an un-missable event despite its lack of restraint. Didier is that rare character who has had no real agency in his life – events, both good and bad, have just happened to him – and Heldenbergh, a hulking mass of repressed feeling, creates a believable ticking time bomb (I disagreed, however, with a late-film harangue that hews a bit on the unearned, mawkish side). Elise, however, aches more overtly with anguish, with Baetens channeling pain as convincingly as has ever been portrayed. Watching them first lob accusations at one another, and increase their own emotional distance, is harrowing. It’s just that as Van Groeningen treats us to more examples of the same thing, the visceral stranglehold loosens. Despite the heroic efforts of editor Nico Leunen, our attention starts to wander, and wonder if there is more to the story than this filler.
The film’s music, however, becomes a strong bridge between these increasingly trying back-and-forth scenes. Bjorn Eriksson’s score, combined with likes of alt-folk masters like the ubiquitous T-Bone Burnett as well as Lyle Lovett, add great dimension to the story of Didier and Elise’s rise and fall (I presume that Baedens and Heldenbergh did their own singing, which sounds heavenly), charting the band’s rise from small bars to small concerts. It makes one wish this movie didn’t keep hitting the same notes — there’s a devastatingly meaty kernel at the center of Breakdown, but ultimately, there isn’t that much movie there.
The Broken Circle Breakdown is playing at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.
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