An ineffective and blatantly manipulative melodrama.
The Broken Circle Breakdown
A major success in its home country of Belgium (and the country’s submission for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars), The Broken Circle Breakdown is prime material for audiences craving more sombre and dramatic content during this fall’s awards season. Relying on elliptical editing that packs a big emotional punch, along with several affective musical interludes, it’s understandable why the film has been a success in Belgium and Europe (it recently picked up more nominations than any other film at the European Film Awards). But The Broken Circle Breakdown‘s popularity isn’t too surprising considering how much it panders to viewers. It’s an ineffective and blatantly manipulative melodrama, lazily relying on its playfulness with time in order to get the emotional response it wants. It’s hard to feel anything genuine when the filmmakers are too busy trying to squeeze every last tear out of its audience.
The film’s centre is Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and Elise (Veerle Baetens), a couple who tour as folk/bluegrass musicians with their friends. The story starts with news that their young daughter Maybelle has leukemia and must go under chemotherapy. Shortly after this the film cuts back several years earlier to Didier and Elise’s first night together. This is the first of many manipulative choices director Felix Van Groeningen and editor Nico Leunen make, contrasting the couple’s lowest points with scenes of happier times in the past. It’s essentially Blue Valentine, but with all the emotional impact sucked out and replaced with a dying child. Groeningen doesn’t spend much time developing the family’s situation. He lets the sight of a five year old throwing up and losing her hair do the heavy lifting for him, relying on sad images rather than making anything on screen feel honest. Maybelle doesn’t seem like a young girl fighting for her life through a terrible situation. She’s just a plot mechanic for Didier and Elise. The transparency makes it impossible for the film to recover from this initial failure.
Groeningen also makes some poor choices when it comes to developing characters. When Didier first meets Elise at the tattoo parlor she works at, he explains his love for bluegrass music and America. It doesn’t come as a big surprise when Didier, a proud atheist and believer in science, starts to become disillusioned with the US while his daughter suffers. In a flashback where Maybelle takes her first steps, the camera changes its focus to a TV playing news coverage of 9/11. The groan-worthy quality of that scene is soon overshadowed when, after George W. Bush vetoes a bill funding stem cell research, Didier unleashes a tirade at one of his concerts ranting about pro-lifers and right-wingers. Once again, nothing in this scene feels genuine. Didier doesn’t come across as an anguished father venting out his frustrations. He simply feels like a mouthpiece for the writer’s opinions (Actually, Heldenbergh is a co-writer of the play this film is based on. I haven’t seen the play myself, so I don’t know if this scene was lifted from the source material or not, but regardless it doesn’t work here).
The musical interludes, where Didier and Elise perform on tour, are the true highlights in the film. Heldenbergh and Baetens, who sing and play themselves, are great to listen to, and do an excellent job making these performances feel like the only time they can take comfort from everything else in their lives. The best moment, where Elise’s cover of “The Wayfaring Stranger” is coupled with devastating news about Maybelle, is the one time the film succeeds at what it’s aiming for. As for everything else, The Broken Circle Breakdown is a well-made but ultimately ineffective film.