Monday, November 11, 2013

The Broken Circle Breakdown

The better the movie, the harder it can be to put into words. Such is the case with Belgium’s entry for foreign-language Oscar consideration, the bluegrass-and-cancer uniquity “The Broken Circle Breakdown.” 

Johan Heldenberg plays Didier, a musician with a bluegrass band in Ghent, who loves America and the purity of the bluegrass sound. One day, he walks by a tattoo shop and is (understandably) taken aback by the beauty of Elise (Veerle Baetens), the tattoo artist at the front desk. He asks her about her tattoos and tells her about bluegrass – one of the movie’s joys is the excitement with which Didier shares his love for it – inviting her to a concert that weekend. She comes, and comes home with him, and before long she’s pregnant with Maybelle, the joy of their lives (adorable Nell Cattrysse). 

The script, adapted by director Felix Van Groeningen from Heldenberg’s stage play, takes its name from the traditional song “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” one of fifteen tracks recorded (in perfect English, by the way) on a surprisingly must-have soundtrack. Elise becomes the lead singer of the band, which fills Flemish auditoria with audiences curious to hear this alien sound. Didier moves them out of his bachelor-pad “caravan” and into his main house, where he builds her – not a veranda, he explains, but a “terranda.” The glass walls of the terranda attract birds like moths to a flame, leading to a moving scene in which Maybelle, who has been diagnosed with cancer, refuses to hand Didier a bird that has died after flying into the glass. 

This is not a movie that trades on the easy sympathy of kids with cancer, though it lays bare the pain of these parents as they contemplate the death of their very young daughter. The pediatric oncologist tells Maybelle that he’s putting Captain Chemo to work for her, and Van Groeningen keeps the camera focused on Didier and Elise. It’s their movie, and at their lowest moment they allow themselves to say things to each other – each blaming the other for Maybelle’s disease – that they regret immediately but can never retract. Later, Elise sees another black bird like the one that died, and shoos it away from the glass. She thinks it’s the spirit of Maybelle. Didier refuses to abide such thinking.

Van Groeningen has edited the movie to cut back and forth between the present and various points in the past. Often, such cross-cutting amounts to no more than directorial hot-dogging, but here it works perfectly, drawing connections between events, lending recurring meaning to well-chosen symbols, and bringing richness and resonance to the film. Just when you think this crazy quilt of bluegrass and cancer is perfect – perhaps a bit too perfect – Didier launches into a series of rants about stem-cell research and the opposition to it by George W. Bush and American religious fundamentalists. These rants, including one delivered to a packed concert hall, are totally out of place, and vaguely ridiculous, but they end up working, too. That's where he is in his life.

“The Broken Circle Breakdown” is a movie as messy and imperfect and herky-jerky and occasionally coincidental as life itself. The two leads know this material inside out, and deliver performances of lived-in quality. This is just the sort of picture that gets lost in the shuffle. Please seek it out as it completes a weeklong run at the Nuart, or later on home video.

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