By Art Menius 4-27-2014
Following its nomination for Best Foreign Film in this year’s Oscars, Felix van Groeningen’s 2012 film from Belgium, Broken Circle Breakdown can now be viewed on iTune, Amazon Prime, and similar paid services as well as limited theatrical release in art houses and performing arts centers via Tribeca Films. His fourth feature, Broken Circle Breakdown previously found box office and critical success in the low countries, leading to two wins at the Tribeca Film Festival last year.
Three currents run through this cinematographic lonesome river. First, Broken Circle Breakdown provides a compelling and quite believable exploration of Europeans obsessed with an American cultural form and the universal experience of falling in love with a particular genre of music. Didier not only picks banjo, but farms, drives a pick up, and wears a cowboy hat. He owns a horse named “Earl” for Scruggs. Elise runs a tattoo parlor and sings with a sultry soulfulness shaped by Alison and Rhonda.
A torrid love story provides the second theme. The sex scenes prove way hotter than in High Lonesome and infinitely more pleasant, if not exactly safe, than Deliverance. Broken Circle Breakdown, moving backwards and forwards in time from first meeting until final goodbye, traces the entire arc of their time together. Their fights, flirtations, and lovemaking ring true consistently. The screen play presented the story consecutively with the time jumping a product of creative storytelling through editing.
Third, and somewhat less pleasingly, the cloying and familiar tale of a sweet child dying at age six because, Didier believes, President G.W. Bush cut back stem cell research. As you can see, the marketing materials don’t put this storyline front and center.
Flemish vocalist and TV star Veerle Baetens plays the then tortured Elise, whose third suicide attempt after the child’s death sadly proves the charm. Five string man Didier, played by Johan Heldenbergh, committed career suicide shortly before by launching into an emotional and rambling diatribe against God between songs at a bluegrass gospel concert with all the band dressed in white suits. Heldenbergh, who appeared in two of van Groeningen’s three previous films, created the 2009 stage play “The Broken Circle Breakdown.” He learned how to play the banjo, guitar, and mandolin for the role as Didier. For the movie, he sings with the Broken Circle Breakdown Band, but you only see his five-string picking while hearing Hank Van Damme (Karl Eriksson) play.
The film gets so many details right. Two minutes into his first conversation with Elise, he is talking about Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music. The image of Elise’s face lighting up at the precise moment where she realizes “this is my music” is absolutely perfect. She eventually takes the stage name of Alabama Monroe. Before they make love for the first time, he happily explains why Manzanita is his favorite album. “Tony Rice had such a sweet voice,” he tells Elise, “and then he lost it. What a shame!”
Van Groeningen explained that:
Didier and Elise play in a bluegrass band and that is no accident. Bluegrass is integrated in a variety of ways into the story and forms the intrinsic link between all the main issues that appear in the film: life, death, birth, America, motherhood and fatherhood, finding consolation, life after death,… Music is also what unites the couple…. Sometime a song is purely narrative and helps to tell the story or is even used as an ellipsis. In other places, we select a given song
because it underpins the emotions…. Bjorn Eriksson composed the [new] bluegrass songs and also created the score. Meeting Bjorn was very important for the film, in lots of ways. You have to know that a lot of bluegrass musicians have something nerdy, but that is not how I saw Didier and Elise. Bjorn has been a bluegrass aficionado since he was 16. But he’s also a very cool guy, and so meeting him, influenced not only the sound but also the look of the film. Bjorn conducted the recordings and guided Johan and Veerle’s performances to the max (they sing everything themselves). Bjorn himself plays dobro and guitar.
Falling in love with a banjo player inevitably leads to getting knocked up and no sooner does Elise start singing with the band than she learns she is 13 weeks pregnant. They name their daughter for Maybelle Carter, but cancer claims her much younger. While Maybelle suffers bravely throughly endless treatments and doctors “who won’t give up,” the band grows steadily more successful – moving from bars to concert halls, dressing sharply, and delivering convincing covers of well known titles from “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “Over In The Gloryland,” and “Rueben’s Train” to “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby” via Gillian Welch, “If I Needed You” from Townes Van Zandt, and Lyle Lovett’s “Cowboy Man.”
The Broken Circle Breakdown (BCB) Band now tours with increasing frequency in Europe with more than a dozen dates listed for May 2014 alone. The soundtrack from the movie spent eleven weeks at the top of the Flemish Ultratop 50 while going Flemish Platinum and hit number 35 on the Dutch album chart.
“Four stars! One of the finest final scenes in a movie this year… if there were any justice, Veerle Baetens would break out as an international star.” – New York Daily News
“Belgium’s submission for the 2014 foreign language film Oscar is a powerful and haunting tale of love, death and bluegrass — a mournful song played on a broken instrument, with striking visual accompaniment.” – The Observer
- Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Tribeca Film Festival (2013)
- Best Actress, European Film Awards (Berlin 2013)
- Best European Film, Panorama Audience Award, Berlin International Film Festival (2013)
- Best Film, Best Actress, Best Director, Ensor Awards of Flemish Cinema (2013)
- Nominated for Best Foreign Film, 2014 Academy Awards