Wednesday, November 25, 2015

'Broken Circle Breakdown': A gripping and musical family portrait

Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) fall in love, have a child, and grapple with worldly and eternal questions.
Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) fall in love, have a child, and grapple with worldly and eternal questions.
About the movie
The Broken Circle Breakdown
MPAA rating:
Running time:
Release date:
Johan Heldenbergh; Nell Cattrysse; Veerle Baetens
Directed by:
Felix Van Groeningen

There's a lot to be said for the way Felix van Groeningen, writer and director of The Broken Circle Breakdown, slices and dices his narrative, chopping the romance between a hipster Flemish singer and banjoist and the tattoo artist he meets, then marries, into time-hopping chunks.

Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and Elise (Veerle Baetens) meet cute in her studio, and start making music together, literally (boy, she can sing!). But we don't see these key moments until midway into the film. Instead, at the outset, there is the couple's 6-year-old daughter, Maybelle (an extraordinary Nell Cattrysse), in a hospital, diagnosed with cancer, the doctor talking her parents through treatment options, the chemo.

How did they get here? And where are they going?

If van Groeningen, adapting a play written (and performed) by Heldenbergh, had given us the ballad of Didier and Elise in straight chronological order, the mom-and-dad-with-a-sick-child melodrama would have been too much, and too little. But by exploding their story into fragments, the memories and experiences resonate and refract - illuminating the heartbreak, and the good times.

Rare, too, is the way The Broken Circle Breakdown incorporates music into its narrative. The songs - traditional bluegrass and country, and a clutch of new ones rooted in same - are as integral to the characters and their relationships as the dialogue. When Elise and Didier stand on a concert hall stage, exchanging leads on Townes Van Zandt's sad and beautiful "If I Needed You," their gestures are telling, the words aching.

The Broken Circle Breakdown deftly juggles some heavy-duty themes: not just the crisis of cancer, parents faced with the possible loss of a child, but the eternal questions. Didier is a passionate atheist, convinced of the finality of life. Elise wears a cross around her neck and believes the spirit lives on.

Didier's and Elise's opposing beliefs are put to the test, in more ways than one, in this surprisingly moving, and musical, portrait.


The Broken Circle Breakdown ***1/2 (Out of four stars)

Directed by Felix van Groeningen. With Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, and Nell Cattrysse. In Dutch with subtitles. Distributed by Tribeca Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 51 mins.

Parent's guide: R (sex, nudity, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz Bourse





Inquirer Movie Columnist and Critic
We encourage respectful comments but reserve the right to delete anything that doesn't contribute to an engaging dialogue.
Help us moderate this thread by flagging comments that violate our guidelines.

Comment policy: comments are intended to be civil, friendly conversations. Please treat other participants with respect and in a way that you would want to be treated. You are responsible for what you say. And please, stay on topic. If you see an objectionable post, please report it to us using the "Report Abuse" option.

Please note that comments are monitored by staff. We reserve the right at all times to remove any information or materials that are unlawful, threatening, abusive, libelous, defamatory, obscene, vulgar, pornographic, profane, indecent or otherwise objectionable. Personal attacks, especially on other participants, are not permitted. We reserve the right to permanently block any user who violates these terms and conditions.

Additionally comments that are long, have multiple paragraph breaks, include code, or include hyperlinks may not be posted.

Read 0 comments
comments powered by Disqus
Latest Videos:
Also on
letter icon Newsletter