DIRECTOR: Felix van Groeningen

CAST: Johan Heldenbergh, Veerle Baetens, Nell Cattrysse, Geert van Rampelberg, Nils de Caster, Robbie Cleiren


RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes


THE rousing bluegrass tunes heard and performed throughout The Broken Circle Breakdown travel from soaring peaks of joy in the foot-stomping numbers to desolate valleys of sorrow in the heart-wrenching ballads.

Belgian director Felix van Groeningen’s drama about a passionate relationship devastated by grief spans a fair breadth. That makes much of it intensely moving, even if it gradually veers into the overwrought, surrendering restraint in favour of sledge-hammer message-mongering.

The nature of the tragedy at the drama’s centre is made evident from the start in a hospital scene, as parents Didier (Johan Helden-bergh) and Elise (Veerle Baetens) confront the grim reality of a terminally ill 6-year-old daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse).

The action then steps back seven years, settling into a time-shuffling, elliptical pattern maintained with impressive fluidity and clarity by editor Nico Leunen. Didier and Elise spend their first night together in the trailer where he lives on a patch of Flemish farmland. He’s a neo-bohemian cowboy with a bushy beard and wild mop of hair; she’s a free-spirited blonde whose wiry body is a canvas for tattoos. Their sexual chemistry is palpable, enhanced by the impression that both have been around the block a few times.

Before long, Elise is also singing with the bluegrass band in which Didier plays banjo, allowing the couple to harmonise musically as well as romantically. When Elise falls pregnant, Didier momentarily freaks, not wanting to take responsibility for a child. But he soon accepts the unplanned surprise, renovating the old brick farm cottage as a more suitable place for the family to live.

This history unfolds punctuated by quick glimpses of later hospital visits at various stages in Maybelle’s chemotherapy, as well as musical performances during which the band’s popularity grows, taking them from bars to fairs to small concert halls. The non-linear structure works extremely well, making the drama a bracing emotional roller-coaster of feel-good/feel-bad turns.

One of the most affecting sequences is when the first worrying signs of Maybelle’s illness emerge. The action cuts to Elise singing a twangy rendition of the plaintive folk traditional The Wayfaring Stranger, before segueing directly to the worst blow the couple could possibly face.

The audience shares their tragedy before witnessing many of their happiest earlier moments – their flirty first encounter, when he wanders into her tattoo parlour; his very public proposal, interrupting a spirited performance onstage to pop the question; their wedding ceremony, with a bad Elvis impersonator presiding.

Full knowledge of the pain in the pair’s future adds melancholic dimensions to these scenes.

But the script starts working too hard when it traces the escalating strain on the relationship. And the decision to telegraph a second tragedy needlessly forewarns of a late-action shift into melodrama.

Elise’s retreat into deep depression and her contemplation of religion and spirituality are grounded in solid dramatic foundations, as is Didier’s atheistic belief in the finality of death, giving him fewer avenues to seek comfort. But too many of the manifestations of his bitter-ness and rage are on the nose.

As soon as he articulates his lifelong fixation with America as “a country of dreamers”, it’s clear he’s heading for disillusionment.

The film goes off the rails when Didier erupts onstage in an anti-religious, anti-American, anti-creationist rant that makes Ronee Blakley’s Nashville meltdown look like a minor hiccup. All this is really too bad, because so much of the drama is raw and real.

Together or solo at the centre of every scene, the two leads bring warmth and integrity to their roles.

Baetens, in particular, is very moving. And while we learn little about the other band members, the affection binding them is drawn with quiet efficiency. – Hollywood Reporter

If you liked Nebraska or Incendies, you will like this.