' Cinema Romantico: Broken Circle Breakdown

Monday, January 20, 2014

Broken Circle Breakdown

“If I Needed You” is among the most well-known and, alternately, most consistently covered country-western songs. Townes Van Zandt wrote it and recorded it, but I might venture to say a great many people first heard it via Emmylou Harris and Don Williams (at least, that’s how I first heard it). Guy Clark covered it. Ricky Skaggs covered it. Australian chanteuse Kasey Chambers covered it. Andrew Bird and (my beloved) Tift Merritt covered it. There have been countless others and no doubt there will be countless more. At perhaps the most the crucial juncture of “Broken Circle Breakdown” our protagonists, Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and Elise (Veerle Baetens), fronting a Belgian bluegrass band, step to the center of a stage before a rapt audience and contribute their version of “If I Needed You.”


This musical melodrama from director Felix Van Groeningen, recipient of two awards at the Tribeca Film Festival (actress and original screenplay), possesses a story that is nothing new. It’s jumping-off point is disease – specifically, cancer that ravages the little daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), of Didier and Elise, and how this creates an irrepairable rift in their marriage. It’s a common cinematic scenario, but it’s uncommon in the propulsive energy of its telling and in the way it seems almost desperate to include a flood of themes and ideas. Not all these themes and ideas are wholly successful, but then our lives are not wholly successful either, and “Broken Circle Breakdown” goes all in a noble attempt to encompass lives lived and lost.

The film utilizes a broken narrative. It is not broken, however, in the manner of an Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, whose films feel like puzzles with random pieces snapping into place throughout. Rather the narrative is high tides and low tides, Happiness and Sadness running right up against each other again and again as the film continually moves from present to past, fighting the disease and falling in love. If a happy life for you means sticking to the middle ground and avoiding the peaks and valleys, “Broken Circle Breakdown” may feel alienating. It may also feel exhilarating. And crushing. Didier and Elise live their lives one bluegrass tune at a time. For those three minutes and five seconds they’re free. Of course, those three minutes and five seconds end, they always end goddammit, and then what?

Ah, but do they end? To be clear, “Broken Circle Breakdown” is chock full of metaphors and allegories, some potent, some better left to the compost pile on Didier’s in-progress countryside farm, but all refreshingly on the prowl for some sort of higher truth. Music, as has been spouted many times in many platforms, connects us, not simply in the here and now and across barriers of race and creed, but across time and space and perhaps – depending on how far you want to roll with this – into the spirit world, whatever your definition of the spirit world may be. (This blog is agnostic, even if its sole creator and contributor is not.)

Facing the idea of mortality at far too young of an age, Maybelle confronts her father on the topic, who tells it like it is – or, I should say, the way he thinks it is. Elise thinks differently. This elicits arguments. Does life reach beyond Earth, or does it end once and for all when our time here ends? Didier, for all his intense devotion to music, is a pragmatist, someone who feels he can provide for himself on his own farm and erect his own veranda. Elise, her body adorned in various tattoos telling the story of her life, has starry-eyes, and has faith in reincarnation. These ideas become a bridge to one of the strangest, boldest, craziest subplots of the year, Didier’s fascination with the amber waves of grain of America, its standing invitation to re-invent yourself.


That fascination, however, becomes entangled – and this is where it gets strange and bold and crazy, and problematic – in science – specifically in the idea of stem cells, an avenue that could help her daughter and an avenue that is slowed down on account of America. This is underscored with Presidential addresses viewed through the prism of TV, footage that you’ll swear is editing leftovers from Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly.”

It also allows for the film’s most explosive moment, and it occurs in the aftermath of the “If I Needed You” duet, a moment of terrifying rawness that will not end as Didier subject his audience and bandmates to his political viewpoints as he passionately harangues them. Is this “Broken Circle Breakdown” forcing science and religion to collide or is it the filmmakers off camera forcing science and religion to collide? Well, in an interview with Indiewire van Groeningen indicates that the play on which the film was based was, in fact, “trigger(ed)” by George W. Bush’s decision to stop stem cell funding.

That is to say, "Broken Circle Breakdown" unmistakably has a message to impart, and in certain places it feels oversized to fit. But, "Broken Circle Breakdown" also does not pretend to have all the answers, and that is crucial. The closing scene will haunt your dreams because you will not stop wondering......did the character hear the song? I have my answer. What's yours?

6 comments:

Candice Frederick said...

i do think the science part could have been more streamlined (it kinda came out of nowhere), but i absolutely adored this movie. so touching and raw and honest. and very sad. beautiful performances too.

Bob Turnbull said...

Loved this film (made my top 5). It isn't perfect (the rant on stage feels far lengthier than it needs to be - even if I have complete sympathy with him), but that's hardly the point. The way that broken narrative sets up big events and then goes back in time just emphasizes the importance of living life for every moment. We know these life changing things are about to happen, so we can revel in their joy and get frustrated when they bog down in petty arguments.

Would love to see it grab the Oscar, but The Great Beauty seems on track for it.

Nick Prigge said...

Candice: Yeah, the reincarnation bit I liked. But then when they tried work in stem cells.....that did seem forced, especially when you have to resort to TV footage to do it. Even so, like you say, the good and the great more than outweigh all the bad here.

Bob: That's an excellent point about the narrative scheme, using it to emphasize the important of living life for every moment. Well said. So true. And personally, I'll be rooting for it come Oscar night.

thevelvetcafe.com said...

I loved this film so much. Yes, the politics feels slightly off at moments, but it's easy to overlook when the rest is so brilliant. I had no expectations, not caring for either country music or tattoos, and I was flored by it and turned into a blurbing mess after crying so much. The most tear-provoking movie of 2013, easily.

Alex Withrow said...

It is so satisfying to be scrolling through the External Reviews on IMDb and come across a friend's post.

Not only that, but this is easily the finest review I've read of the film. Exceptionally well put, as always.

That final scene really shook me up. I loved the rest of the film (it was nothing like I thought it was going to be), but that final shot made me rethink everything the film had shown me. A fantastic feat.

Nick Prigge said...

Thank you for the kind words. Really appreciate it.

I agree that last scene is everything a last scene should be. I love closing shots that send you hurtling back through the film, letting everything come into focus.