A bit of imagery that’s repeated frequently in this flamboyantly structured Belgian musical melodrama is that of a bird that’s killed when it flies into a window. Nabokov used the identical image at the beginning of “Pale Fire,” but to far greater effect than Felix van Groeningen does in “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” in which it becomes a metaphor for the death of a young child and a springboard for banal reflections on the afterlife and religion in general.
The title of the film also has is allusive side, since it’s derived from the hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and its country-folk variant “Can the Circle Be Unbroken?”—which is sung by the Ghent-based bluegrass band headed by the main character, banjo-player and singer Didier (Johan Heldenbergh, who also co-wrote the play on which the film is based). The circle, of course, is the circle of life that—as in “The Lion King”—can bring heartache as well as happiness.
Didier is an almost fanatical admirer of the USA, which he sees as a place where everybody gets a new start, and of the music that represents people from different backgrounds coming together in harmony. His talent—and sexy hirsute allure, reminiscent of a young Kris Kristofferson—attract the eye of tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens), and the two quickly become a couple living on Didier’s ramshackle rustic homestead outside the city. Soon they’re wed in a ceremony enlivened by all their musical pals, and before long they’re blessed by the arrival of darling daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse). But tragedy strikes when the girl is diagnosed with cancer and the experimental treatments that are her only hope fail. Under the strain of coping with the loss, Didier and Elise’s marriage flounders too—thus a “broken circle breakdown.”
Van Groeningen doesn’t, however, tell this story straightforwardly. It’s not just that he intersperses musical performances into the narrative—pretty good ones, at that (in which Elise participates as she becomes part of Didier’s onstage crew). It’s that he chops the narrative up into hunks that he shuffles about out of chronological order. So the film begins with hospital scenes of the ill Maybelle and then flashes back to the early days of the couple’s relationship, jumping back and forth from that point on and introducing shards of sequences (like Elise’s emergency transport in an ambulance) that will be explained only much later on.
But one of the threads that grows increasingly evident is Didier’s lack of interest in—or at least empathy with—what might be called the spiritual side of things, something that contributes to the tension between him and Elise after Maybelle’s death and feeds his anger at the USA that boils over when then-President George Bush forbids the stem cell research that might have saved the girl’s life. That in turn leads to a hysterical on-stage rant about religion and science and how political decisions are too often clouded by the former, and—ultimately—a medical decision that some would oppose on religious grounds as well.
It’s obvious that Van Groeningen wants to raise a great many issues of substance via the family drama of Didier, Elise and Maybelle, and through his elaborate cross-cutting technique and mixture of music and exposition to indicate that they’re universal and perennial matters. But though one might well admire his ambition in trying to meld all the disparate elements together, by the close you’ll probably have a sneaking suspicion that all the cinematic extravagance is merely a cloak for what’s essentially an overripe tearjerker. And even those who are fairly tolerant of mawkish domestic melodrama will probably find the shrill, strident pontificating of the last reel a bit much to take, not simply because it’s so implausible but because the turn to pure speechifying is so grating.
Still, Heldenbergh and Baetens are both excellent, tracing the ups and downs in the relationship between Didier and Elise with passion, and the musical performances throughout are engaging. Technically, too, the picture is fine, even if Ruben Impens’ cinematography exaggerates the Dardenne-influenced grittiness of the images.
In the end, however, the manipulative quality of “The Broken Circle Breakdown” overwhelms the story and leaves you feeling that you’ve been asked to put a lot of effort into comprehending what turns out to be a rather obvious message.