Yesterday on Feb. 3, Jane Rosenthal and Tribeca Film hosted a special screening of 2014 Academy Award Best Foreign Film Nominee "The Broken Circle Breakdown" at the MoMA. The screening featured a Q&A with director Felix Van Groeningen and lead actress Veerie Baetens and it was moderated by Vanity Fair’s Mike Hogan.
One of the integral storytelling devices in the film is the music: it features a vibrant soundtrack of American bluegrass and traditional spiritual music. The choice and placement of songs propels the emotional undercurrents of the plot and clues the audience into the mindset of the characters. Hogan asked about the decision to use such a distinctly American genre of music in the film. Van Groeningen said it was actually the doing of Johan Heldenbergh, the lead actor of the film and author of the play it was based on. Heldenbergh fell in love with bluegrass and wrote it into his original play. The film, Van Groeningen says, popularized bluegrass across Belguim, with the band at the center of the film touring and selling out venues.
Hogan moved on to the darkness of the piece. Van Groeningen said that he was somewhat daunted by how tough the material was, realizing “how tough it was” after relaying the plot to a friend. When writing the script he tried to find the happy, human moments he could work in to make it more manageable. Baetens did not find herself intimidated by the material, saying she likes dark stories with sad endings and was tempted by the emotional depth of her character. She said she’s happy with the bittersweet balance of the film, and that “the passion of [the main characters] lightens it up.”
"The Broken Circle Breakdown" plays with time, moving about its story non-linearly, revealing new information piecemeal before finally putting it in context. When asked about the inspiration for this structure, Van Groeningen said it came from the stage play. The play was essentially just a bluegrass band on stage with a man and a woman delivering monologues. These monologues, like the film, went back and forth in time until it became clear it was about a couple who had lost a child, and this structure made the story “work… You knew where you were heading, and you were afraid to go there…” The script for the film, as it was originally written, did not work once the movie was coming together in the editing room Van Groeningen said. So he decided to restructure the timeline until he came up with the film as it is now. Hogan then asked Baetens whether it was difficult to perform her character across different times and states of the main character’s relationship. She said it wasn’t, that the eight years over which the story takes place makes the playing of distinct phases of a relationship easier as opposed to a film taking place over a twenty-four hour period.
Baetens’s character is a tattoo artist, and she is covered with tattoos of her own. The process of putting on the tattoos, she said, took two-and-a-half hours every day.
Heldenbergh’s character has a love-hate relationship with America. He loves the culture, the music, and the romanticism, but is outraged by the Bush administration, specifically the banning of stem cell research. Van Groeningen described this as indicative of the political feelings in Belgium at the time. He said the Bush era was hard, and “something didn't feel right.” He describes the relationship as a metaphor for life, how people can see things differently depending on where they are in life.
Hogan asked Baetens if the music complicated the acting, made it more difficult to bring out the intense emotions required of the role. No, she said. The music made it easier to embrace the inner lives of the characters and, and acting with the music was easier to play than some of the straight scenes.
The role of religion and the prospect of a life after death is a major theme of the film. Van Groeningen said that the film doesn’t reach a conclusion and has room and understanding for many views on the subject, because seemingly contradicting opinions “are a part of everybody.”
As for what they’ll be wearing to the Oscars? Belgian.
Stephen Jones contributed reporting.