Thick with emotion and vibrant storytelling, bluegrass music is something rich and wondrous. And while a major part of American culture, it proves universal in the beautiful and bittersweet drama out of Belgium called The Broken Circle Breakdown. Bluegrass not only thrums from the core of this romantic feature, but also serves as the shared passion of its protagonists, who are forced to confront both the pleasure and the pain inherent in this music over the course of their lives together.
Based on the Johan Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbles play The Broken Circle Breakdown Featuring The Cover-Ups of Alabama, this fantastic film centers on the love story of Elise (Veerie Baetens) and Didier (Heldenbergh). He's an intellectual frontman for a Belgian bluegrass group. She's a tattooed free spirit drawn in by his love of all things American. After a chance meeting as he admired the artwork in her studio window, theirs could have been just a hot one night stand. But instead, Elise returned to him in pick-up truck and a stars and stripes bikini. Together these two rebels forged a surprisingly settled life together complete with a thriving musical act, a lovely home, a terranda (combination terrace and veranda), and a bubbly little daughter named Maybelle. But like the music they so love, things turn tragic.
Maybelle's weird health quirks are discovered to be an aggressive cancer. As her health fades, her parents look for a place to channel their grief and rage. Often, this place is themselves or each other. While Elise wants to believe in an afterlife that might give rest to her baby and solace to herself, Didier clings to the atheism that makes sense to him and rails against the religious culture he blames for holding up the scientific advances that might help their child. The band they've formed suffers as does their marriage, and the beautiful bluegrass underlines and bolsters every moment.
Of course, Baetens and Heldenbergh deserve credit and acclaim as well. As the film flashes forward and back to their lives before and after Maybelle's birth, they craft a connection that feels authentic, deeply held, and enviable. Heldenbergh presents Didier as a man who dreams with American idealism, but is plagued by self-righteous and a volatile temperament. Baetens, in her girlish flirting and effortless sensuality, brings out his softer side. But this vulnerability turns on her when Maybelle's condition worsens. Every step of the way, these two performers are in sync in this complicated dance of love and hate, and it is truly sensational.
The Broken Circle Breakdown has been earning raves from its festival run, but no one warned me what a total tearjerker it would be. Obviously, with a plot line that involves a terminally ill child, it's a sad movie. But director Felix Van Groeningen so beautifully captures the love shared between Elise and Didier that every scene of the film radiates with verve. Their relationship feels alive, and when this relationship is at risk it broke my heart. And so I wept in a way I haven't since I was in third grade and saw My Girl for the first time, back when grief was still a new sensation to me.
Don’t be scared off by the big emotions— The Broken Circle Breakdown is the definition of a “good cry" movie. The emotions are earned. The journey is hard but wonderful. And in the end, though I was soaked in my own tears, I felt invigorated and alive. The Broken Circle Breakdown is a bold and beautiful film about love and grief that never pulls its punches.