Saturday, November 16, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW The Broken Circle Breakdown
Americana In Belgium, While The Band Played On
Veerle Baetens as Elise, with Johan Heldenbergh as Didier in "The Broken Circle Breakdown", directed by Felix Van Groeningen. Tribeca Film


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Saturday, November 16, 2013

"Will the circle be unbroken?", sings a male Flemish band as Felix Van Groeningen's tendentious drama "The Broken Circle Breakdown" begins.  This hymnal poses what the film's title already answers.  Central in this festival is Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), a bluegrass musician whose relationship with Elise (Veerle Baetens) is told in flashbacks interspersed by ditties.  It is the summer of 2006 in Ghent, Belgium.  Their seven-year-old, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), has cancer.  It doesn't look good.

Elise, a warm, free-spirited soul, indulges, as parents do, in the fantasies of her child.  Didier, a Debbie Downer by contrast, offers harsh adult truths.  There's coldness and veiled hostility to his interactions with Maybelle.  Any bedtime stories Didier tells are reserved only for Elise.  Didier questions the evidence of things unseen but can be naive.  A lingering television image of George W. Bush right after he finishes a September 11, 2001 Oval Office address shows that a president of faith can look uncertain.  The shot, and others, are acute jabs to provoke reaction to an unpopular American president.  Yet it amplifies the redundancy in a film trying too hard to tweak you before its dive into heavy melodramatic tidal waves.

The ballad of Didier and Elise is a turbulent union akin to that of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, one in which guilt, anger and alcohol conquer love both before and after Maybelle's passing.  Elise's tattoos of past loves are a pictorial of pain and pleasure etched all over her body.  There's a crudeness and horror to the tattoos.  Has Elise tried and failed to get pregnant before?  Didier is skeptical of her intentions after he finds out he's a father.  Elise doubts Didier's love for their daughter.  Elise's love for Maybelle may only be exceeded by her romance with the American South.  The director casts Didier as an aloof but vitriolic man, in one scene naked as the day he was born, an image of foolishness more than innocence, as he watches Elise drive off in his pick-up truck, post-coital bliss.

Mr. Van Groeningen's over-directed film of fantasy and reality are an obvious love letter to the South, specifically its bluegrass and country music.  Grand Olde Opry legends like Maybelle Carter and Bill Monroe are evoked, as is country band Alabama, who among many have sang "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?"  The problem with "The Broken Circle Breakdown" is that it's too hollow and artificial a film to possess any emotional resonance that its story elements are supposed to invite.  The honey-golden lighting for several numbers is extreme, an overwhelming counter to the damp, bleakness of the film's melancholy.  The musical renditions feel fake, like dining at New York City's swanky Daniel restaurant with plastic utensils.

I'm not sure what was more exploitive or manipulative: the music that was played as the rough and tumble of lives unfurled, or the prop-like positioning of the child cancer story.  It all served to remove me from this pretentious film, which was based on a play by Mr. Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels.  I was strangely unmoved by "The Broken Circle Breakdown", which telegraphed too many of its punches and dangled many of its conceits, flaunting them unabashedly to the detriment of their own cause.  The disconnected episodes, in a film romanticizing and idolizing Southern country life in its characters, lack narrative grounding, existing purely for their own sake. 

The film's overall confines for its stage, which include a late, unnecessary and haunting montage, are narrow, truncated far too much to allow for any adequate absorption of scenes or feelings, the latter of which are transmitted on a purely guttural, blunt level.  Editing is as much a problem as direction.  If this is the best entry Belgium has for the Academy Awards foreign language category, then all I can wish Mr. Van Groeningen and company is the very best of luck.

Also with: Geert Van Rampelberg, Nils De Caster, Bert Huysentruyt.

"The Broken Circle Breakdown" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America but contains strong sexual content and language.  In the Dutch language with English subtitles.  The film's running time is one hour and 51 minutes. 

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