In films, music often gets used to pull people out of dark places, or at the very least offers perspective, hope, or context for a terrible situation. In the sorrowful, but undeniably powerful and magnificent look at Bluegrass, tattoos, parenthood, and tragedy The Broken Circle Breakdown, the music purposely exists only as a backdrop to a larger and more meaningful tale. Unlike asking if the music or the misery came first, filmmaker Felix van Groeningen flatly dismisses the question as immaterial, suggesting that while they don’t always work in tandem, the interaction of the musical and the emotional cuts deeper than one could ever truly comprehend.
Shifting back and forth across seven years of courtship and marriage, the film picks up at a moment in the lives of banjo player, farm owning, former punk rocker Didier (Jonah Heldenbergh, who co-wrote the stage play the film is based on) and his heavily tattooed lover and singing partner Elise (Veerle Baetens) where their relationship is about to reach its lowest point. The daughter they conceived after first meeting has been battling an aggressive form of cancer. Despite having deep philosophical differences, the couple harbours a deep love and understanding for one another. The plight of their child (Nell Cattrysse), however, brings to light how they both cope with difficult circumstances in different ways. Didier wants to desperately wear his emotions out in the open in the same way the American music he idolizes allows the greats he covers to convey their own turmoil. Elise, on the other hand who wears her emotions literally often having to cover them up when her feelings change, asks Didier to stay a lot more silently strong for their daughter.
Sublimely photographed and filled with song choices so emotional that it almost puts John Carney’s Once to shame, Groeningen’s film feels uncomfortably intimate in the best possible way. Using a structure that will also earn comparisons to Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine, and while this project seems to be riding the coattails of both previously mentioned efforts to a degree, the filmmaker and his cast outperform any of their predecessors. To use a more appropriate musical comparison befitting of the film, it’s like the Johnny Cash version of the Trent Reznor penned “Hurt.” The original is great, but this new interpretation of similar material delivers the punch and emotional depth that Once and Blue Valentine (both of which are really great in their own right) really wanted to achieve in the first place.
Opening and taking its name from the Christian hymn “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” the idea that Groeningen is using musical and genre conventions to tell an unpolished and gloriously humane story about grief and acceptance becomes apparent almost immediately. The Belgian filmmaker has an eye and ear for the same kinds of visuals and emotional beats that bluegrass music can conjure up. It’s a perfect example of a music video as memory; a sensory exercise created to try and convey feelings that are inherently unquantifiable. It’s raw and bracing at times, but also incredibly warm and inviting when it needs to be. Groeningen handles his film’s moments of warmth deftly, lending them jagged, realistic feeling edges that make moments that could lend themselves to cliché feel lived in and believable rather than scripted. It’s voyeuristic in the same way that listening to an album full of confessional and bracing lyrics can feel like prying deep into the recesses of a singer’s soul, which is precisely the point here.
Baetens plays Elise as a woman of great conviction, but sometimes suspect decisions. She’s a realist that’s prone to outbursts of emotion when she can’t reason out what’s happening. She’s sexy, thoughtful, and ultimately weaker than she ever wants to let on. Of course, Heldenbergh’s Didier is weaker in will, but he’s more honest when it comes to expressing his feelings, and as their battle to keep everything together for the sake of their daughter wears on, it’s understandable why he feels so stifled. Together, they form one of the best on screen couples in recent memory: a pair who can fight and bicker so intensely because they no longer want to admit the love they have for each other. Neither can accept their shortcomings in the light of tragic circumstance, and it’s equally painful and poignant to behold.
The final twenty minutes of the film make up one of the most powerful and heartbreaking climaxes of the year, punctuated by a moment where Didier has what might actually be the film’s titular breakdown on stage. It’s a moment of unfiltered rage at a God who might not even exist delivered to a room full of uncomfortable faces who could never understand how he feels. There’s no way the film could exist without this scene, and it’s one of the most memorable things audiences will likely see this year. It’s a climax that elevates an already great movie almost to the stuff of legends. Like the songs played throughout that have endured and offered hope to the downtrodden, so too will this remarkable work of cinema.