The Broken Circle Breakdown: Berlin Review

Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh
Invigorating musical elements and the lead actors' potent chemistry can't entirely protect this tragic relationship drama from its encroaching shortage of subtlety.

This intensely emotional Belgian drama flavored by American-style bluegrass music traces the sad spiral of a passionate relationship derailed by devastating loss.

BERLIN -- The rousing bluegrass tunes heard and performed throughout The Broken Circle Breakdown travel from soaring peaks of joy in the foot-stomping numbers to desolate valleys of sorrow in the heart-wrenching ballads. Belgian director Felix van Groeningen’s drama about a passionate relationship devastated by grief spans a comparable breadth. That makes much of it intensely moving, even if it gradually veers into the overwrought, surrendering restraint in favor of sledgehammer message-mongering.

Higher on commercial crowd appeal than much of the festival and arthouse fare the Berlinale side-sections tend to offer, the gritty three-hankie film has already proven a hit in domestic release.

The nature of the tragedy at the drama’s center is made evident from the start in a hospital scene, as stricken parents Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and Elise (Veerle Baetens) confront the grim reality of a 6-year-old daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), with a terminal illness.

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The action then steps back seven years, settling into a time-shuffling, elliptical pattern maintained with impressive fluidity and clarity by gifted editor Nico Leunen. Didier and Elise spend their first night together in the trailer where he lives on a gorgeous patch of Flemish farmland. He’s a neo-bohemian cowboy with a bushy beard and wild mop of hair; she’s a free-spirited blonde whose wiry body is a canvas for tattoos. Their sexual chemistry is palpable, enhanced by the impression that both have been around the block a few times.

Before long, Elise is also singing with the bluegrass band in which Didier plays banjo, allowing the couple to harmonize musically as well as romantically. When Elise gets pregnant, Didier momentarily freaks, never having wanted to take responsibility for a child. But he soon accepts the unplanned surprise, renovating the old brick farm cottage as a more suitable place for the family to live.

This history unfolds punctuated by quick glimpses of later hospital visits at various stages in Maybelle’s chemotherapy treatment, as well as musical performances during which the band’s popularity grows, taking them from bars to fairs to small concert halls. The non-linear structure works extremely well, making the drama a bracing emotional roller coaster of feel-good/feel-bad turns.

One of the most affecting sequences is when the first worrying signs of Maybelle’s illness emerge. The action cuts to Elise singing a twangy rendition of the plaintive folk traditional “The Wayfaring Stranger,” before segueing directly to the worst blow the couple could possibly face.

The audience shares their tragedy before witnessing many of their happiest earlier moments -- their flirty first encounter, when he wanders into her tattoo parlor; his very public proposal, interrupting a spirited performance onstage to pop the question; their wedding ceremony, with a bad Elvis impersonator presiding. Full knowledge of the pain in the couple’s future adds melancholy dimensions to these scenes.

But the script by the director and Carl Joos, based on a play co-written by Heldenbergh, starts working too hard when it traces the escalating strain on the relationship. And the decision to telegraph a second tragedy needlessly forewarns of a late-action shift into melodramatic overdrive.

Elise’s retreat into deep depression and her contemplation of religion and spirituality are grounded in solid dramatic foundations, as is Didier’s atheistic belief in the finality of death, giving him less avenues to seek comfort. But too many of the manifestations of Didier’s bitterness and rage are on the nose. As soon as he articulates his lifelong fixation with America as “a country of dreamers,” it’s clear he’s heading for disillusionment.

Having a moment as significant as Maybelle’s first steps take place while news footage of the World Trade Center attacks plays on a television is just way too obvious an indicator of the path the film will eventually go down. Likewise having Didier explode in direct response to George W. Bush’s address vetoing stem cell research. When he spews out a tirade about the paradox of pro-lifers endorsing capital punishment while being ethically opposed to embryonic research, the scene smacks more of editorializing than of a father’s grief.

No matter where you stand on the issues raised here, the treatment is simply too calculated in the context of such a generally heartfelt story. The film goes off the rails when Didier erupts onstage in an antireligious, anti-American, anti-creationist rant that makes Ronee Blakley’s Nashville meltdown look like a minor hiccup.

All this is really too bad, because so much of the drama is raw and real. Even some of the borderline precious cuteness -- such as the band welcoming Maybelle home after her first round of chemo with “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” -- is charming because we actually have been made to care about these people.

Either together or solo at the center of every scene, the two leads bring enormous warmth and integrity to their roles. Baetens, in particular, is tremendously moving. And while we learn very little about the other band members, the affection binding them is drawn with quiet efficiency.

The film looks terrific; cinematographer Ruben Impens brings crisp elegance to the visuals, including some stirring pastoral scenes contrasted by the stark hospital interiors.

But the indisputable main asset here is the music. Van Groeningen ably uses songs to move the plot along or shape the emotional mood of a scene, and improvisational musician Bjorn Eriksson’s original score -- rich in slide-guitar swoons and delicate string finger-picking -- blends smoothly with numbers that dip into the traditional vault as well as the work of artists like Lyle Lovett and T Bone Burnett.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama Special)

Production companies: Menuet, Topkapi Films

Cast: Johan Heldenbergh, Veerle Baetens, Nell Cattrysse, Geert Van Rampelberg, Nils De Caster, Robby Cleiren, Bert Huysentruyt, Jan Bijvoet

Director: Felix van Groeningen

Screenwriters: Carl Joos, Felix van Groeningen, based on the play “The Broken Circle Breakdown Featuring the Cover-Ups of Alabama,” by Johan Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels

Producers: Dirk Impens

Director of photography: Ruben Impens

Production designer: Kurt Rigolle

Music: Bjorn Eriksson

Costume designer: Ann Lauwerys

Editor: Nico Leunen

Sales: The Match Factory

No rating, 109 minutes