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Worth A Look: 14.29%
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1 review, 1 rating

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Broken Circle Breakdown, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Let no heart... be unbroken..."
5 stars

Just about everybody who buys a ticket for "The Broken Circle Breakdown" will know going in that it's designed to break his or her heart, but how and how much is easily underestimated. Director Felix Van Groeningen and company construct their tale of love, bluegrass music, and disaster so well that it's sometimes hard to tell whether the moments of joy make the tragedies worse or bearable.

The film opens with a song and then moves to 2007, where Elise Vandevelde (Veerle Baetens) and Didier Bontnick (Johan Heldenbergh) are in the hospital with their six-year-old daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), only to be told that the tests are positive, and she has cancer. Just as that's really sinking in, it's 2001, when Didier & Elise spent their first night together in a camper on his run-down farm just outside Ghent. Though Didier has no interest in getting tattoos from Elise's shop, she's soon a member of his bluegrass group, and it seems like nothing could be more powerful than their love.

Star Johan Heldenbergh co-wrote the play that this picture was based upon, although that must be a very different thing from the film. Van Groeningen and his collaborators do a number of screen-specific things very well, with the most important and noteworthy being how things are cut together. The Broken Circle Breakdown may be the best-edited film you'll see for some time, with Van Groeningen and editor Nico Leunen doing something impressive at just about every level: There's not a scene that feels flabby or like it's missing anything. Montages (often keyed to a lyric-heavy song that doesn't leave a lot of room for error) deliver information concisely without slowing down or doling out exposition. The time period shifts back and forth without the need for on-screen titles, always showing the events that are most appropriate right at that moment, even if it's not always the obvious choice. Questions and events can be left dangling in the air without the feeling of cheap, artificial suspense.

The music is occasionally used to tie some of those sequences together, and it is by and large quite good. Although Didier mentions that he used to be a punk rocker, the music in this film is bluegrass, and I suspect that a large chunk of the cast is there for how well they can play or sing; their sound is good enough that it's not hard to believe in how their performances quietly move to larger nicer venues over the course of the story. Such a quintessentially American form of music may sound like an odd choice for a movie taking place Belgium, or maybe just a way to get enough English in the trailer to help international sales, but there's actually a very important story purpose to that. Even more, importantly, though, it's a style whose lack of adornment gives the singers no place to hide their feelings - with the additional implication that any change in how a song sounds or how well the singers harmonize is about them, rather than any changes in style.

Unless they're dubbed, Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens can sing. More importantly, they can act, especially against each other. Just like the music doesn't provide them anywhere to hide, the screenplay doesn't either - there aren't any best-friend characters for them to talk things out with. They're not needed, as Baetens and Heldenbergh are great together, from their giddy love at first sight through believable maturation to intertwined but very different collapses. They're excellent, and the only real help they get - Nell Cattrysse as Maybelle - isn't really a scene-stealer. Certainly, Maybelle is a great little kid, but in some way the best thing Cattrysse does is to not oversell her as a catalyst.

The screenplay tying all of this together is not perfect, although that one bit of telling instead off showing stands out compared to how expertly everything else we learn about Didier & Elise has been simply laid out indicates how great the rest is. A device that seems to fit a play better than a film (the rest of the band becoming a chorus and singing during solemn moments) is odd but mostly works. Mostly, Van Groeningen's script (with Carl Joos) and direction is a model of economy that doesn't sacrifice detail and impressive emotional balance: As much as the film will juxtapose younger Elise & Didier with the older versions to show how their experiences have changed them, the coiled timeline does a perfect job of showing how good and bad memories live side by side. The emergence of one of the more fair-minded conflicts between belief and atheism is also kind of remarkable - I don't think I've ever seen a film crush a non-believer's faith quite like this one does.

It connects so well as to be astonishing. With only slight changes, "The Broken Circle Breakdown" could have been an unbearable melodrama that only existed to make the audience suffer; instead, it's a weeper that earns its tears fair and square.

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originally posted: 10/03/13 09:36:44
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Hamptons International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Hamptons International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Vancouver International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Vancouver International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/07/13 Louis Blyskal Great Movie 4 stars
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  DVD: 11-Mar-2014


  DVD: 11-Mar-2014

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