Keswick Film Club - Reviews - Broken Circle Breakdown

Reviews - Broken Circle Breakdown

Broken Circle Breakdown

Reviewed By John Porter

Broken Circle Breakdown
Broken Circle Breakdown
The disintegration of a relationship charted through a mixture of music, theology, and a fragmented narrative gave Sunday's Alhambra audience something to think about courtesy of "The Broken Circle Breakdown" (Felix van Groeningen), and while it was undoubtedly a hotbed of themes, whether or not it was a cinematic success was up for debate.

Bluegrass, it seems, is a small but passionate movement in Belgium, and one which Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) is a devotee. As the movie opens we are thrown into a rendition of the hymn "Will the Circle be Unbroken?" by his band in a small, sweaty bar, and are soon watching the first tentative steps of a romance between him, the Americana obsessed boy, and Elise (Veerle Baetens), his rockabilly love from the local tattoo parlour. An attempt to describe the plot chronologically would be somewhat unfair to a film that owes much to it’s stylistic attraction to flashbacks, but over a period of two hours, we witness several years of love, loss and broken ideals.

As the movie jumps forward from Didier’s tumbled home and caravan, the couple's six year old daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) is being treated in hospital for cancer. In this first half of the picture, the timeline is logical, and relatively easy to follow: Flashing back to summertimes of haze drenched honeymoon-love, naked horseback riding, and the renovation of the old farm, before shifting forward again to their child in and out of hospital, slowly bearing more and more effects from both cancer and chemotherapy.

Live music interludes pepper these jumps back and forth, sometimes fitting perfectly and echoing the marriage buildup and breakdown, (in one wonderful number, Elise refusing to take the hand of her partner offered across a stage before hundreds of people), and sometimes appearing as nothing more than forced, feel-good asides. The band are also Didier's closest friends and are in the background at several key family-style moments, yet are virtual strangers to the viewer due to the script never allowing enough time to make them anything but banjo playing stock figures, so the community feel that is aimed for, and possibly depended upon, in these sequences is often lacking.

The flashback structure is used to good effect, tying together the circular themes in the songs and narrative, and also allows for some beautiful editing touches, notably in a scene where Elise is telling a sick Maybelle that all the fear will go away if she clutches at her crucifix heirloom, before cutting from the child to a soundless, transcendental image of horses galloping fields. The more events unfold however, the more confused this method of storytelling seems to become, and with the sudden inclusion of shots in an ambulance, and Elise's face covered in blood, the security of placing events within a definite future/past time-frame is taken away from us. Whether this is a deliberate choice to emphasize the chaotic events of the second half of the movie, which do descend into a emotional and at times hellish turmoil for the characters, or whether it is simply a little messy is a tricky question.

The acting in the performances of the two leads is outstanding, but although the audience shares a barrage of intimate moments with the characters, and Van Groeningen goes to pains to pack all of their little quirks into each flashback, I personally never felt that I 'knew' them. All the emotional punches seemed to come from the events that were happening, not through a care of who they were happening to. A tale revolving around childhood terminal illness and a breakup is not the most subtle, or original method of achieving poignancy.

"The Broken Circle Breakdown" was not a bad movie, but in this reviewer's opinion, a long way from being an outstanding one. The impression was of a work that had bitten off more than it could chew. Even though it had enough of a mish-mash of quirky-euro-bluegrass glory, gut-wrenching child deaths, religious antagonism, and even spirit walkings to make it seem thematically adventurous, all remained under-developed, and its failure to go full throttle and get to the root any of them calls to mind the phrase, "jack of all trades, master of none".

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