Through the sultry twangs of a bluegrass slide-guitar, two lovers Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) strike up a relationship that will take them through passion, parenthood, grief and back again. Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012) is a rousing and intensely emotional story about an unconventional love affair set to bluegrass against a debate about stem cell research. In fact, the film’s only minor let-down may well be in its combination of raw emotional drama and a strong political message, a marriage which often feels forced to the point of soapbox screaming.
Some rather heavy-handed metaphors – including a shot of the Twin Towers crumbling to the ground as a key family moment plays out – occasionally dampens what is an otherwise handsome and devastating European drama. Based on the acclaimed stage play by Mieke Dobbels and Johan Heldenbergh, The Broken Circle Breakdown follows the romance of tattoo artist Elise and bluegrass musician Didier, a relationship which is both musical and romantic, and eventually beset by the knowledge that their only child has a terminal illness. We are made aware of this at the very beginning of the scene; through some mostly skilful uses of flashback, the film constructs their narrative as the situation takes a turn for the worse.
Talented cinematographer Ruben Impens brings this world of dingy country and western bars, colourful tattoo parlours and rural farmland to life, imbuing the scenes with colour and fluidity. This is a very Belgian take on timeless Americana, from the rockabilly tattoos on Elise’s wiry frame to Didier’s gruff beard and cowboy hat. Even if the topics get pretty heavy quick, The Broken Circle Breakdown plays out almost like a song, with improvisational musician Bjorn Eriksson’s original score combining with a number of traditional songs of love and heartbreak.
Van Groeningen’s masterful use of music guides the emotional direction of a scene in a way that rarely feels exploitative. Where the film scores highest, however, is with the central performances of its two leads, who manage to convey the intensity of their love and grief expertly. It’s testament to their performances that even in the occasional scene that could potentially fall into the hands of tweeness, it almost immediately fades away. These are characters to care about, and a film that does this type of story justice is a rare thing indeed.