Bluegrass music in Belgium? ‘The Broken Circle Breakdown’ has it all. It has to be one of the most intense and tragic love stories depicted on film in a long time. It has love, loss and joy all rolled up into an emotionally powerful drama. It was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards. What propels the narrative and gives it teeth is the amazing soundtrack of gorgeous bluegrass tunes consisting of sweetness and sorrow. It’s an American romance with a European twist. The directing of Felix Van Groeningen and the editing style of Nico Leunen give this heartbreaking tale its explosive impact like the ups-and-downs that life often throws at us.
Bluegrass is a subgenre of country music. It is inspired by the music of Appalachia and is known for its use of string instruments particularly the banjo, fiddle and mandolin. Traditionally, it has its roots with immigrants from the United Kingdom and Ireland. It’s American bluegrass music that unites the lead characters. The story takes place in the Flemish city of Ghent, Belgium. Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) is a banjo player in a Belgian bluegrass band that meets the love of his life in Elise (Veerle Baetens), a tattoo-parlor owner who eventually joins his group as the lead singer. It’s a passionate courtship that takes place on Didier’s land in the countryside where he is renovating an old farmhouse.
The narrative is told in a nonlinear format. This gives the film its intensity as the story moves back and forth in time. It amplifies the moments of joy and contrasts it with extreme moments of sorrow. The couple has a daughter together. They name her Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) after an American country musician. It’s a moving performance by the little girl. Like a sparkler, she brings a spirited love into their lives and makes their family feel complete. And then tragedy strikes when the child is diagnosed with cancer. This is the core of the story. It tests the couple’s faith and bond toward each other. Can the relationship endure or is it doomed? It will certainly tug at your heartstrings like a sledgehammer.
The film is interspersed with Didier and Elise performing bluegrass songs with a motley crew of band members. Many of the tunes are traditional bluegrass. Didier’s passion for music is magnetic. Elise’s vocals are electrifying. Her tattoos are symbolic of her life. She exudes sexuality through them. One flashback shows her surprising Didier in a patriotic American flag bikini. It’s erotic and turns him on as they passionately make love together. It’s these contrasting moments of romance against the impending low points in their lives that make this film so vibrant and palpable. Baetens won Best Actress for her mesmerizing performance at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. She has the potential to be a major star one day. The two lead actors do their own singing in the film. They are remarkably good at it too.
There is one misstep in the film. In particular, when Didier takes the mic on stage and goes on a rant against fundamentalism and stem cell research. It’s a frustrating moment that is related to his daughter’s fight against cancer. Beyond that brief outburst, the acting and singing are terrific. There is even a warm scene when Maybelle is in remission and Didier’s bandmates do a rendition of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ at a surprise party for her. ‘The Broken Circle Breakdown’ is a real gem that depicts the honest high and lows of a tragic romance. Check out the official trailer http://youtu.be/3a50DJkCxqw.