In 2009, Belgian Compagnie Cecilia produced a smash hit play written by and starring Johan Heldenbergh. It was entitled The Broken Circle Breakdown featuring the Cover-Ups of Alabama. Director Felix Van Groeningen and Carl Joos subsequently adapted the play for the screen and shortened the title. The Broken Circle Breakdown won the Audience Award at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Academy Awards.
What initially promises to be an alternative, light-hearted romance soon reveals itself to be a particularly confronting drama that debates fundamental issues and beliefs. Brought together by a shared love of all things American, especially bluegrass music, Didier (Heldenbergh) and Elise (Veerle Baetens) set up house in a picturesque old farmhouse outside Ghent. With a group of friends, they play in a country and western band. The unplanned arrival of a daughter, Maybelle (an amazingly natural performance by young Nell Cattrysse), seemingly reinforces their love. Yet, as Elise sadly comments, it was too wonderful to be true.
When their little daughter is stricken with cancer, Didier and Elise deal with their mounting grief in very different ways. Elise is a tattoo artist who literally wears her heart on her skin. She comforts herself and their child with romantic, quasi-religious notions of reincarnation.
Atheistic Didier, however, remains firmly rational. His admiration of all things American turns into bitterness at that country’s obsession with religion. In particular, he rails against the ethics of politicians like “that bastard Bush” who oppose the embryonic stem cell research that might save the lives of children like Maybelle yet are willing to spend billions furthering technology for killing people.
Throughout the film, their music (written by Bjorn Eriksson) helps the characters deal with both joyous and tragic occasions. Editor Nico Leunen’s non-linear presentation of the story explains the characters’ emotional journey in a most humane way. Although the issues confronting the characters are devastating, The Broken Circle Breakdown is definitely not a depressing film. Rather, it is an affirmation of the resilience of the human spirit.
Five stars from me.