It is difficult to think of a major theme of life that is not tackled in The Broken Circle Breakdown. Love, death, guilt, grief, birth, heartbreak, religion and science; this film touches on it all.
From the grim opening in which young Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) is diagnosed with cancer, it has the viewer firmly in its emotional grip.
Maybelle is the daughter of bluegrass musician Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens), who are completely mesmerising as their dramatic relationship flourishes and then begins to unravel.
After the pain-ridden opening, the film immediately flashes back seven years to the thrill of the couple’s meeting. Elise gives Didier a history of her life via her stunning tattoos and Didier teaches her about his passion for bluegrass music and its Appalachian roots.
The Broken Circle Breakdown, directed by Felix van Groeningen, is based on a play by Johan Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels, but van Groeningen has cleverly chosen to put his own mark on the trajectory of the plot. Rather than follow Didier and Elise’s relationship in a linear fashion, the story bounces across time episodically, allowing the many painful, tragic scenes to be interspersed with more passionate and joyful periods from the couple’s history.
You may have deduced from the names of the cast, writers and director that this film is not in English. You would be both right and wrong – interestingly, the majority of the dialogue is in Flemish, but the bluegrass songs are sung in beautiful, heart-breaking English. The film was shot outside of Ghent in Brussels, where a picturesque old farm serves as the property Didier swiftly and quirkily renovates in readiness for the birth of Maybelle.
I wanted to watch The Broken Circle Breakdown for the bluegrass music and the tattoos – both of which are stunning – but I was unprepared for the emotional rollercoaster on which the film would take me. The pairing of the highly emotive plot with the delicacy of the structure and editing transforms a devastating series of calamities into an exquisite and poignant exploration of the limitations of love in the face of tragedy.
This is a film that will still be with you days after viewing. If you don’t want to end up doing a great deal of surreptitious tear wiping, take a pack of tissues and someone to give you a big hug as the credits roll.
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