×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

The Broken Circle Breakdown

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.

With:
With: Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse, Geert Van Rampelberg, Nils De Caster, Robby Cleiren, Bert Huysentruyt, Jan Bijvoet. (Dutch, English dialogue)

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.

The Broken Circle Breakdown

Belgium

Production: A Kinepolis Film Distribution release of a Menuet Prods. production in association with Topkapi Films. (International sales: the Match Factory, Cologne.) Produced by Dirk Impens. Co-producers, Arnold Heslenfeld, Laurette Schillings, Frans van Gestel. Directed by Felix van Groeningen. Screenplay, Carl Joos, van Groeningen, based on the play "The Broken Circle Breakdown Featuring the Cover-Ups of Alabama," by Johan Heldenbergh, Mieke Dobbels.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Ruben Impens; editor, Nico Leunen; music, TBCB Band, Bjorn Eriksson; production designer, Kurt Rigolle; costume designer, Ann Lauwerys; sound (Dolby Digital), Jan Deca; line producer, Johan Van den Driessche; visual effects, Filmmore; visual effects supervisor, Kasper Oerlemans. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special), Feb. 12, 2013. Running time: 112 MIN.

With: With: Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse, Geert Van Rampelberg, Nils De Caster, Robby Cleiren, Bert Huysentruyt, Jan Bijvoet. (Dutch, English dialogue)

More Film

  • Mandatory Credit: Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

    Oscars, After Repeated Tumbles, Take the Stage in Hollywood

    At least the weather will be sunny for Sunday afternoon’s Oscars ceremony following one of the stormiest —  and strangest — awards seasons in memory. Expectations have been turned upside down in key categories amid a historic lack of consensus among guild and critics groups. The 91st Academy Awards will be the first in three [...]

  • Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his Night

    Box Office: 'How to Train Your Dragon 3' Speeding to Series-Best Debut With $58 Million

    Universal’s “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” is far and away the box office champ for Academy Awards weekend with an estimated debut of $58 million from 4,259 North American locations. Three holdovers and an expansion will make up the other top four spots, with the sophomore frame of sci-fier “Alita: Battle Angel” [...]

  • Stanley Donen

    Stanley Donen, Director of Iconic Movie Musicals, Dies at 94

    Stanley Donen, the director of such stylish and exuberant films as “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Funny Face” and “Two for the Road” and the last surviving helmer of note from Hollywood’s golden age, has died at 94. The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips tweeted that one of his sons had confirmed the news to him. Confirmed [...]

  • '2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live

    Film Review: ‘2019 Oscar Nominated Short Films: Live Action’

    The Academy skewed dark in its choice of live-action shorts this year, selecting four films to slit your wrists by — each one featuring child endangerment in a different form — and a fifth, about a diabetic on her death bed, that finds a glimmer of uplift at the other end of life. If that [...]

  • How the 'Rich Eisen Show' Mixes

    How the 'Rich Eisen Show' Mixes Sports and Showbiz in an Entertaining Mix

    Walking through the El Segundo studio where veteran sportscaster Rich Eisen tapes his daily “Rich Eisen Show,” the sheer density of sports memorabilia is overwhelming — everything from game balls to jerseys, gear, autographs and uncountable photos are crammed onto every inch of wall and desk space. But step into Eisen’s dressing room, and the [...]

  • Yorgos Lanthimos

    Film News Roundup: 'The Favourite' Director Yorgos Lanthimos Boards Crime Drama

    In today’s film news roundup, Yorgos Lanthimos has set up a crime drama, “Here Lies Daniel Tate” is being adapted, and Donna Langley becomes a member of the USC film school board. DIRECTOR HIRED “The Favourite” producer-director Yorgos Lanthimos has signed on to write and direct crime drama “Pop. 1280,” an adaptation of Jim Thompson’s [...]

  • Brody Stevens Dead

    Comedian Brody Stevens Dies at 48

    Prominent Los Angeles comedian Brody Stevens died Friday in Los Angeles, Variety has confirmed. He was 48. “Brody was an inspiring voice who was a friend to many in the comedy community,” Stevens’ reps said in a statement. “He pushed creative boundaries and his passion for his work and his love of baseball were contagious. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content