By Simon Miraudo
February 10, 2014
The Broken Circle Breakdown doesn’t jerk tears. It attempts to extract them by using enhanced interrogation techniques, as if inspired by George W. Bush himself (the former American president cameos frequently throughout the movie, on TV sets and the like). Utterly devoted to making you cry, it tells of a Belgian couple dealing with the terminal illness of their young daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse). Writer-director Felix van Groeningen jumps back and forth in time throughout his largely unpleasant feature, introducing us to America-admiring Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and tattoo-toting Elise (Veerle Baetens) when they were simply doe-eyed lovers, and then alternately showing them as beaten-down parents dealing with the repercussions of Maybelle’s cancer treatment. It’s a super bummer. To quote Community‘s Troy Barnes, “My emotions! MY EMOTIONS!”
The only respite in Didier and Elise’s tortured life – and, in the film – is the Yankee bluegrass music they perform at clubs around Belgium (with the idiosyncratic twangs in each song learnt phonetically, I assume). The maudlin-nature of their picture aside, Heldenbergh is excellent in the part of the conflicted Didier, while Baetens is revelatory as the capricious Elise, the two of them undressed and emotionally-unmasked for the entire 111 minute running time. As their troupe of troubadours grows in popularity, the personal strain on our star-crossed partners becomes unbearable, resulting in a catastrophic, cacophonic climax. My big take away from The Broken Circle Breakdown? Life is largely terrible and unrewarding, but hey, banjos are kinda okay.
Now, you may not weep during van Groeningen’s flick. I didn’t. Yet, even if one was to find the events unfolding before them so desperately upsetting that they had no choice in the draining of their bodily fluids, it wouldn’t mean that The Broken Circle Breakdown had actually succeeded. It wants to make us sob, however, there are episodes of The Voice that could probably pull the same off. Its bald desire to revel in tragedy until viewers can do little else except break down themselves makes whatever truth might be found in this airing of Didier and Elise’s pain ring false. A generous critic might say this intense spirit-scarring has been conducted to make an impassioned case for stem-cell research (as Didier himself does during one awkward performance, thinking of his child and the betrayal of America’s right-wing politicians who’ve long held up the research process). The Broken Circle Breakdown made me feel fortunate for my less-painful existence, but not generous.
The Broken Circle Breakdown plays the Perth International Arts Festival from February 10. It arrives in Australian cinemas May 15, 2014.