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