Of the films up for an Oscar alongside Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture, Belgium’s offering is one of the most impressive, finds Emily Wight.
Most people wouldn’t associate bluegrass music with Belgium. A sub-genre of American country music, its influences are in Celtic folk songs, as well as some blues and jazz. Bill Monroe, its most famous figurehead, is from Kentucky.
Why, then, are bluegrass bands now springing up around Belgium? One of the men who can be credited for this is Johan Heldenbergh. A long-time fan of bluegrass, he co-wrote the stage play Broken Circle Breakdown and stars in Felix van Groeningen’s film adaptation of the same name, which has been well-received in Belgium, and nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
In Broken Circle Breakdown, Heldenbergh plays Didier, one half of a bluegrass-singing couple whose relationship – and its demise –is played out alongside footage of rehearsals, performances, and an original score by improvisational musician Bjorn Eriksson. It is the music that unites him with the tattoo artist Elise – played with a delicate conviction by Veerle Baetens – as on their first meeting in her tattoo parlour, they argue over whether Monroe or Elvis Presley is the greater musician. Elise goes to watch Didier perform with his band, and gets sucked into both his music and his life.
The film is first and foremost a very human love story, but it is also a love letter to America. In fact, if it wasn’t for the Flemish language, you might be forgiven for assuming it was an American production. In what is almost some kind of parody of the American dream, Elise strips down to a stars and stripes bikini and writhes around on the bonnet of Didier’s car; the pair rides horses naked but for cowboy hats and boots. In one episode, the camera moves past a family scene to focus on a television screen broadcasting footage of the 9/11 attacks, followed by a speech by George Bush which he ends with the ubiquitous line “God Bless America”. Ostensibly, this feels odd, but it is part and parcel of the American imagery that builds up to Elise having to remind Didier, after his angry reaction to another speech by Bush, that they don’t live in the United States. It’s almost as if she’s reminding the audience, perhaps deterred by the all-American sounding bluegrass soundtrack, too. While at first the Americana theme feels slightly bizarre, it seems like an attempt by Heldenbergh and van Groeningen to highlight the universality of the human experience, rather than to express an Americaphile sycophancy.
The non-linear structure of Broken Circle Breakdown is critical to its intrigue. We begin the film in 2006, when Didier and Elise are visiting their sick daughter, Maybelle, in hospital. The film follows the effects of her suffering on the pair as they attempt to deal with their grief in separate ways. Juxtaposed against this unravelling heartbreak are scenes that celebrate their love: the first time Elise watches Didier perform, urgent sex, a marriage proposal, preparation for the birth of their child. This technique is not new: Broken Circle Breakdown is in many ways similar to Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. It even contains echoes of Michael Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and François Ozon’s 5x2, which tells the story of a divorce backwards. However the continuous bluegrass soundtrack provides a constant thread that ties the otherwise disjointed scenes together, and the film’s theme song Will The Circle Be Unbroken? is a nod to the chaotic structure as well as to Didier and Elise’s relationship. The story is also played out on Elise’s body, which is covered in tattoos that refer to important events – and men – in her life.
Broken Circle Breakdown is not a film that will cheer you up. Its light-hearted shots of a couple falling in love only make the rest of the plot more heartbreaking and the tragic ending in particular almost unbearable to watch. Some critics have labelled it melodramatic, but its jolly bluegrass soundtrack and flashing footage of happier times provides a blunt contrast that reminds the viewer of the arbitrary and unfair nature of life.
Adding to the raw intensity of the film is the fantastic acting and extraordinary chemistry of Heldenbergh and Baetens. Heldenbergh’s big, bearded Didier towers physically over the bird-like fragility of Baetens, but it is her powerful presence that fills the screen, in her love, grief, anger, and onstage performances. Her delicate, all-American blondeness, and Baetens’ ability to deconstruct this in one simple line or gesture, is reminiscent of Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line, Robin Wright Penn in Forrest Gump, even January Jones as Betty Draper in Mad Men. In Belgium, Baetens is well-known for her lead role in the popular TV series Sara, but in Broken Circle Breakdown she will no doubt catch the eyes of international filmmakers. If this film deserves credit for one thing, it is for providing her with a breakthrough role.