Ups and downs are constantly juxtaposed in “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” a bluegrass-infused Flemish meller about two lovers who lose their little daughter to cancer. As in helmer Felix van Groeningen’s previous pic, “The Misfortunates,” sophisticated cutting brings out the story’s complex emotional undercurrents, though “Breakdown’s” less convincingly scripted second half sputters more often than it shines. A huge hit at home last fall, this crowdpleasing tearjerker with a terrific soundtrack sold widely after its festival bow in Berlin, where it scooped up the Panorama audience award and Europa Cinemas Label.
Inspired by a stage performance conceived by Johan Heldenbergh (one of the stars of “The Misfortunates”) and Mieke Dobbels that consisted of bluegrass songs interspersed with the story of a sad love affair, the film had to be entirely reinvented for the screen. And so it was; much to van Groeningen’s credit, “Breakdown,” shot in gorgeous widescreen, never feels like a filmed play or concert, though music is performed throughout.
In a hospital in the Flemish city of Ghent — think Bruges minus the tourists — Didier (Heldenbergh), a singer and banjo player in a Belgian bluegrass band, and his lover, Elise (Veerle Baetens), a tattoo-parlor owner, are told by doctors their 6-year-old daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), has cancer.
To counterbalance what must certainly rank high on the protags’ list of worst days ever, the pic rewinds to the moment they were just getting to know each other and life seemed full of possibilities. That is, at least until Didier hears that Elise is pregnant, which comes as a shock. With an additional family member on the way, the old farmhouse the singer had been slowly renovating while the lovebirds slept in a nearby trailer suddenly becomes a matter of urgency.
Van Groeningen continues in a similar fashion, jumping back and forth in time, from moments of joy to moments of extreme sadness, the contrasts amplifying the intensity of each instant. The entire first act is a breathtakingly edited slice of melodrama that’s further welded together by a soundtrack that reunites the voices of Didier and Elise, who becomes a singer in Didier’s group.
But as the pic continues after Maybelle’s funeral, some 45 minutes in, the storytelling becomes more erratic. A couple of shots of Elise in an ambulance are initially disorienting: What is she doing there? And when is this happening?
The death of their daughter takes a heavy toll on the two, with Elise first blaming herself and then her other half. Van Groeningen follows this with the couple’s sweet, very first encounter, then flashes forward to the mourning lovers’ agreement that something has to change. The intended effect is clear: Didier and Elise think back to what they liked about each other in the first place before coming to the realization that they can’t blame each other for Maybelle’s death. But while the ingenious high-low editing worked well in the pic’s early going, from this inelegant sequence onward, the film’s tone and mechanics become increasingly blunt.
Didier starts to rage against a televised speech by President George W. Bush, delivered when he vetoed stem-cell research that could have saved Maybelle. This leads to an overwrought onstage meltdown of Charlie Sheen-esque proportions that feels like a screenwriter’s wet dream (“I am an ape and I’m scared,” says Didier in his anti-religion, pro-science ramble), which lacks believability.
The film’s transformation into long-winded position paper is complete when, in the closing scenes, another political hot potato (at least for U.S. presidents; in Belgium, it’s legal) is shoehorned into the plot for no apparent reason.
Local star Baetens, covered in tattoos, is mesmerizing, even if her character’s actions start to make less sense; like the equally terrific Heldenbergh, she does her own singing. Other band members can be told apart only by their differing amounts of facial hair. The music, supervised by Bjorn Eriksson, is a mixture of new bluegrass-style compositions and classics, and does a lot of the story’s emotional heavy lifting. Tech package is impeccable.