Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) have been together for seven passionate years. When their little girl Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) is diagnosed with a serious illness, all the turning points in their intense and moving relationship seem to flash by. They remember their love at first sight, courtship and passion, coming closer through their bluegrass band, braving marriage, pregnancy and the joy of parenthood. But as the stress and sorrow of Maybelle's treatment takes its toll, Didier and Elise begin to respond in different ways - their love in threat, just when they need it most.
Jonathan Teplitzky’s Burning Man, released into near-empty cinemas in 2011, is one of the most compelling and memorable Australian films of recent years. By cutting up his story of a Bondi chef whose life becomes dysfunctional and self-destructive in the wake of his young wife’s early death, Teplitzky found a fresh and exciting way to tell what might all too easily have seemed an overly melodramatic story.
The music isn’t just some colourful add-on.
In The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgian writer-director Felix van Groeningen takes a similarly non-linear approach to a comparable boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl tale. The result, with its Belgian bluegrass setting, is sufficiently distinct from its Australian predecessor to make a serious mark - it’s not hard to see why it has won prizes at Berlin and Tribeca film festivals.
I’ve not idea whether Groeningen and his star and co-writer Johan Heldenbergh, whose hit play the film is based upon, have even heard of the Australian film. But it seems likely to me that both are entirely separate personal responses to a common feeling that in this era of fractured attention and multi-tasking, film storytelling can benefit from new temporal approaches.
For all their differences, both films are wildly emotional rollercoaster rides, films with conventionally melodramatic elements that are hard to predict and never feel stale or inauthentic.
Broken Circle’s most novel aspect is its musical setting. Unfolding over several years, the story revolves around the relationship of snaggle-toothed banjo-plucker Didier (Heldenbergh), who plays in a hot bluegrass band called The Broken Circle Breakdown, and vivacious blonde Elise (Veerle Baetens). Like him, she’s an outsider and rebel - she works in a tattoo parlour and loves to show off as much of her own flamboyantly-inked body as possible. After a blissful courtship, Elise is invited to join the band, though in a slightly odd narrative omission, we’re not shown how, when or why.
Conventionally enough, this blend of romance, melodrama and musical starts at the beginning of their relationship, when they’ve just met and he takes her back to his trailer home outside a scruffy rural property - as close as he can get to the US boondocks while living in rustic Belgium. Along the way they get married and face dramatic life challenges following the birth of their daughter. What’s less conventional is the shuffling of the order in which these events are depicted – an approach Groeningen hit upon during the editing.
If the idea of Belgians with banjos makes you think of some wacky spoof along the lines of Aki Kaurismaki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America, think again. The musical performances sprinkled throughout this happy-sad tale are not only lively but surprisingly authentic, very much in the same musical vein as living US bluegrass legends Alison Krauss & Union Station (whose The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn gets a thoroughly infectious workout early on). Indeed Baetens’s singing voice is so outstanding I initially made the error of thinking Krauss’s vocals had been dubbed - remarkably, however, she sings all her own parts.
The music isn’t just some colourful add-on, an adjunct to the drama, rather it’s an integral force in a story that ultimately is about the power of music as a spiritual force, a vital way to help us through the hard times.
Watch 'The Broken Circle Breakdown'
Thursday 18 March, 1:25am on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Saturday 20 March, 1:45am on SBS World Movies
Sunday 21 March, 10:45pm on SBS World Movies
Belgium, Netherlands, 2012
Language: Flemish, English, Dutch
Director: Felix van Groeningen
Starring: Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse