By turns exhilarating and devastating, “The Broken Circle Breakdown” uses bluegrass music as the framework for a story about a torn-up love affair. The fact that the characters at the center of this raw, emotional story are Flemish-speaking Belgians matters less than you might guess. The soundtrack is irresistible, the cast is enthralling and the passions are universal.
The tale has the trajectory of a heartbreaking country ballad. Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) is a big-hearted galoot and banjo virtuoso with an abiding love for American culture and its streets-of-gold lore. Tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens) falls for him when she sees his joyous finger-pickin’ combo onstage, becomes the group’s silver-throated singer and Didier’s darling. When she discloses her unexpected pregnancy, his initial dismay swiftly turns to delight.
But sure as chorus follows verse, trouble comes to paradise. At 6 years of age the couple’s adorable Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) develops cancer. Didier, a dedicated rationalist, tries to deal with the crisis through reason, while emotion-driven Elise copes through faith. They’re committed parents and well-intentioned partners whose inability to compromise undermines their relationship — a cancer of the soul.
The film, deftly directed by Felix van Groeningen, is Belgium’s official Oscar entry. Heldenbergh, who created it as a play, adapted it for the screen. He’s note-perfect in the lead, with the rawboned good looks of a young Kris Kristofferson and a superb voice. Baetens melds beauty, charm and boho sexiness. Her Elise deeply feels every step of her life, memorializing each meaningful turn with an intricate tattoo.
The film reshuffles the chronology of the couple’s affair, holding shards of the past against fragments of the present in order to illuminate both. For each new notch of sadness, there’s a foot-stomping ode to joy. Transforming the narrative into a puzzle adds another level of interest to the story. We’re engaged in seeing what we can figure out on our own and reeling in surprise when we’re taken down a path we never expected.
There’s much to admire here and little to fault. One scene in which Didier erupts in an emotional rant while onstage could be seen as a misjudged dramatic moment. I see it as an embarrassing, over-the-edge outburst of a character exhausted from clinging to self-control. Even if that passage makes you cringe, there’s no denying the movie’s virtues. Humane but never cheaply sentimental, this is a film about finding beauty and transcendence in the face of life’s ugliness and cruelty. I was invested in the characters even at their worst and in love with them at their cracked, imperfect best.