Film Review: The Broken Circle Breakdown

Tragedy strikes a musical couple, putting their relationship at risk in Belgium's foreign-language Oscar entry.

Like the characters it portrays, The Broken Circle Breakdown is a heartfelt but sloppy and overheated mess. Moving at times, but a mess nonetheless. A hit on the festival circuit, the movie will find a niche in theatres with younger viewers who may not recognize old wine in new bottles.

The screenplay by director Felix van Groeningen and Carl Joos is based on a theatrical piece co-written and starring Johan Heldenbergh. In the movie Heldenbergh plays Didier, a monomaniacal roots-music freak with thick hair, bad teeth, and no apparent sense of humor. A singer and banjo player in a bluegrass band, he falls in love with Elise (Veerle Baetens), a slinky tattoo-parlor artist who inks her lovers' names over her body.

Elise moves into a farmhouse Didier is renovating and joins his band. They have a daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), who cramps their freewheeling ways before changing their lives completely when she falls ill. Elise and Didier cope in different ways, Elise by turning to drugs and Didier by ranting onstage against President George W. Bush's stem-cell policies.

The screenplay, which arbitrarily cuts back and forth in time, reveals most of the story early on in the movie. Giving away the plot lets van Groeningen ignore the nuts and bolts of storytelling, like why Didier and Elise fall in love, to focus on grandstanding scenes like fights, tantrums, sex and drunken binges. His strategy is to provoke emotional outbursts by whatever means are at hand: cancer, drug overdoses, even the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Van Groeningen is not one for restraint or understatement, which is why you'll find three prolonged sex scenes in The Broken Circle Breakdown, as well as not one but two death songs. Some of his choices are jarring, even offensive, like cutting from Maybelle's first steps to shots of the burning World Trade Center towers. And there's a fuzzy logic to the movie that's more troubling than its watered-down bluegrass and trendy narrative tricks.

Are Didier's feelings more authentic because he yells them? Are viewers supposed to care for Didier and Elise because bad things happen to them? Do parents love a child more if it's going to die?

The two leads throw themselves into their roles, singing and dancing with abandon (their instruments are dubbed). Heldenbergh remains a grating presence throughout, but maybe that's the point. Baetens is much more accomplished in front of the camera, able to embrace contradictory motives without making Elise seem cruel or simply nuts.

Traditionalists may have some trouble with the music in the movie. Didier name-checks bluegrass icons like Bill Monroe and J.D. Crowe, but given the chance performs mainstream country pop like "If I Needed You" or "Cowboy Man" instead. And for a genre built around virtuosity, the pickers in his band are essentially anonymous.