It’s a rare thing these days to find a film where everyone involved feels intensely, thoroughly committed, where it feels like everyone’s on the same page. I think, among a rare few other filmmakers (Christopher Guest, certainly, or Wes Anderson), this is why David O. Russell’s work has been so surprisingly resurgent over the last few years; in The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, there’s a real feeling of ensemble, a strong sense of common purpose, regardless of the differences between particular characters, or their diverse functions in the overall narrative. It doesn't feel like the workmanlike efforts of professionals – it feels like a bunch of hardworking artists who really like interacting with each other and ‘tossing the ball’ back and forth, and have been given everything they need to do it freely and un-self-consciously. Chemistry is a tricky thing, but chance favors the prepared, and directors, or writers, or actors who can collaboratively prepare for, and create, an environment in which all those other good things can happen, who put everyone on that same page and foster commitment to that same common purpose, has, these days, accomplished something extraordinary, sometimes even before the first frame of film is shot. And that sense of commitment and unity will inform every second of that film.
Even when that film is probably twenty minutes too long. Even when that film has two or three scenes that feel more workshopped or overthought than the seemingly effortless others. Even when, in describing the overt story of the film, one is likely to hear “Oh, man that sounds depressing as hell!” Even when a late-arriving political slant threatens to derail a great deal of what’s come before. I had some practical problems with Felix Van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium, 2012), obviously, and, no doubt, you will too. But take my word for it, this is a great film.
Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) is a happily independent, not-quite-broke, ardently devoted bluegrass musician. Elise (Veerle Baetens) is a fairly rootless tattoo artist who is nonetheless fun, creative, energetic and whip-smart. How they came together as a couple, and their fate thereupon, is told in the occasionally disorienting series of non-chronological episodes and flashbacks that define most film narrative these days (Thanks, Quentin… I think… ), but here it’s well-structured and purposefully executed, and prioritizes the mutual emotional mosaic of Didier and Elise in a far more effective way than linear storytelling would. The one constant under their story is the music they make – authentic acoustic American bluegrass music, which, as Didier explains, is what originally got all of those poverty-stricken Appalachian miners, and their families, through the roughest times imaginable. And as their courtship turns to co-habitation, then to musical partnership, then to marriage, then to parenthood, there’s never any doubt that these two people are lovingly and unconditionally bound to each other. But that’s not the first thing we learn about them. The first thing we learn about them is that their six-year-old daughter has just been diagnosed with cancer. It’s only after that revelation that the rest of their story unfurls, from behind and ahead, and, like the stripped-down but urgently emotional music that threads through it, the narrative, and its human concerns, are forthright and bullshit-free.
I’ll list but a few notable successes of the film, and let you find the rest. The film is adapted from a stage play (co-written, and performed, by the very capable Heldenbergh), a play reportedly rife with monologues. But Van Groeningen’s adaptation (with Carl Joos and Charlotte Vandermeersch) doesn't have anything remotely resembling a monologue. The film actually falters a bit when things get dialogue-heavy in the later stages, not because that’s a problem itself, but because Van Groeningen has so brilliantly cinematized the story otherwise – the old cliché (which I endlessly endorse) holds fast here, that cinema should show you more than it tells you. Allow me to also point out that Flemish is the spoken language through the entirety of the film (besides the songs, of course), and you’ll completely forget that fact within the first ten minutes. That’s how good these actors are. The same goes for the music – these aren't Euro-poser dilettantes, these are wonderful musicians bringing a pleasantly impressive authenticity to music they genuinely love. The political hot-button that’s later pressed concerns the stem-cell therapy their daughter underwent, and while it may strike a lot of viewers as opportunistically intrusive, I myself couldn’t help but think of the medical bills they’d be facing here in the America that Didier otherwise loves so much. In Flanders, Belgium - $0.00.
Many aspects of the film could have become boilerplate melodrama, but no one here allowed that to happen. When the final five Best Foreign Film Oscar nominations were announced, and I learned that this had supplanted killer films like The Rocket (Australia), The Wall (Austria), Neighboring Sounds (Brazil), Gloria (Chile) and The Past (Iran), I thought damnit, this had better be good. It is. The film is no ray of sunshine, I’ll caution you, but the whole enterprise is invested with so much creative hard work, goodwill, generosity and unity of purpose that you’ll walk out of the theater simultaneously thinking that the worst thing that could have happened did, and it was still a happy ending. That's how good this film is.