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The Broken Circle Breakdown

It’s a very interesting film, and well worth seeing—but I feel the need to start off with some spoilers. Here they come, so move it along if you don’t want to know. There are two very significant and heart-rending deaths in the Belgian film, “The Broken Circle Breakdown”, one of which is a six year-old girl succumbing to cancer. The other is very late in the film, and if not for the fact that it was recently nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 86th Annual Academy Awards, I might have tried to avoid this due to its subject matter. But I soldiered on through the 111-minute, non-linear motion picture…made easier by the realization that it’s actually quite good. In fact, the bluegrass music performed throughout is unforgettable and infectious. And on two occasions in particular—it may actually rip your heart out. I cried during “The Broken Circle Breakdown”, but I also admired its unusual trajectory and its admirable enthusiasm. It’s a fine portrait of a passionate relationship, and the tragedy from which it just might not return.

Didier Bontinck(a wonderful Johan Heldenbergh, who first conceived of this as a play)is a fervent and successful bluegrass singer and musician living in Belgium, with a self-described obsessive love for America and its culture. Elise Vandevelde(the striking Veerle Baetens)is the tattoo shop owner(she’s covered in artistic ink herself)that he happens upon and falls in love with. Their tale is told with multiple flashbacks and jumps in time frame, which serves to chronicle their torrid romance, unexpected pregnancy and easing into domesticity in a way that doesn’t wish to simply take us from point A to point Z. It complements the piece. Also, whenever things threaten to get too bleak, when focusing on the severe illness of a sweet young girl, a burst of infectious music yanks you from the doldrums. But when little Maybelle(Nell Cattrysse)does succumb to her sickness about a third of the way through the film, you’ll ponder frequently whether the music or the central relationship can survive the emotional impact.

It’s a peculiar and invigorating dichotomy listening to the actors’ speak in the Dutch language, only to easily shift straight into perfect English while they are singing. Director/writer Felix Van Groeningen works this juxtaposition beautifully, and you’ll be delighted by the charms of the effect. “The Broken Circle Breakdown” is also a movie that insists on wearing its politics clearly on its sleeve—the left one. This approach can often be deemed jarring. And it is to a degree—and that’s coming from a leftist! But you know what? The political angle kind of worked for me here, considering that this film focuses on a man who is enthralled by the prospect of one day going to the “great” United States, and then turning on what he deems the contradictory Washington voice(last decade’s Bush era)on stem-cell research. The unhindered implementation of which, just might have saved his daughter. Yes, it’s a little clunky when Didier lectures a Belgian audience on his beliefs…but it’s sort of powerful too. This is aided a great deal by the strong performances and solid writing. Some will find “The Broken Circle Breakdown” overly preachy and sentimental…and they would not necessarily be wrong. But the richness of the material along with the two lead performances overcome the syrup and the polemics, and it ends up coalescing into a somewhat magical completed work.     Grade:  B+

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