Those who have an interest in football, will be fully aware of the meteoric rise of gifted Belgian players of late, as a nation certainly contending to have the finest national side in the world. Well it seems their cinema isn’t half bad either at present – also going through something of a golden age, as following on from the likes of Our Children, Bullhead and Rust and Bone – comes Felix Van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown, a gripping and emotionally devastating piece of cinema.
We look upon the romance between tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens) and musician Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) from two contrasting angles – one in flashbacks, as we see the pair first meeting and falling hopelessly in love with one another, to the present day, where our protagonists have since had a daughter called Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse). However the six-year-old girl has been diagnosed with cancer, as we watch on as the distraught couple attempt to battle through their daughter’s illness, as she goes through a lengthy spell of chemotherapy. As we mix between the past and the present day, we see how this situation is testing this seemingly infallible marriage, as their conflicting religious views become an issue, as they contemplate the potential passing of their only offspring.
The early stages in The Broken Circle Breakdown are highly effective, as we cut between the daughter battling for her life, and the pair falling in love seven years previous, and the stark difference between the two times is a poignant one, as we see two extremely opposite sides to love. Groeningen portrays the frivolity and playfulness to their coming together, and how nothing else in the world matters at that particular moment in time, which only seeks in enhancing the emotional impact of the illness. We don’t even need words to differentiate between time periods, it’s the facial expressions which tell us everything we need to know.
Considering the story is made up of a mishmash of flashbacks, interweaving between time periods so effortlessly and seamlessly, the story maintains its magnitude. If anything, the classy editing enhances the title, in a similar vein to Blue Valentine. Groeningen also does a fine job in ensuring this focus to the film remains on Elise and Didier’s relationship. Considering their daughter has cancer, it would be easy to focus primarily on that aspect, and yet this is a broader tale of how such a scenario can affect two perfectly content people.
Both Baetens and Heldenbergh are magnificent, as two sincere, earnest and completely engrossing lead performances. They have a miraculous chemistry in the film, and the way they perform both the joyous aspects to their marriage with the more testing ones, is a credit to them both. On a more negative note however, Didier’s obsession with America in the film is one shared by the director it would seem, as this can be accused of becoming somewhat ‘Hollywoodised’ at points. That said, it is inevitable it would feel that way given the rich, emotional depth to the narrative and the melodrama that ensues. Music also plays a massive part to this, as the pair perform live together in a country music collective, as their songs effectively narrate this film as we go along.
Perhaps delving into too many themes – as faith, religion and further desolation is introduced to an already complex picture, it does become somewhat overbearing at times, particularly from an emotional point of view. Nonetheless, The Broken Circle Breakdown is an incredibly upsetting piece of cinema, and if you are to take one piece of advice on top of the need to see this movie – it’s to pack tissues, and lots of them.