Let me take you on a quick tour of the first three scenes of The Broken Circle Breakdown, the Belgian melodrama nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar that opens at FilmScene Feb. 21. First, a bluegrass band plays a respectable version of the gospel classic “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Cut to the lead singer of the band, Didier, and his wife, Elise, hovering over their six-year-old child as she gets chemotherapy for bone cancer. Cut to Didier and Elise, seven years earlier, having steamy sex for the first time.
Never straying from those coordinates of music, suffering and love, Broken Circle Breakdown builds—intense moment by intense moment—to a tear-jerking conclusion. Though the movie jumps back and forth in time, it has an easily-followed plot, which is advanced and punctuated by solid musical performances. Didier and Elise, two Europeans who share a passion for the culture of rural America, fall in love, have increasing success playing bluegrass together, and stumble into having a daughter, who eventually develops cancer. Their marriage and music strain to the breaking point as they struggle in conflicting ways to cope with the trauma.
The two main actors—Veerle Baetens as Elise and Johan Heldenbergh as Didier—fully embody their roles. Both are strikingly attractive, particularly the gorgeously-tattooed Baetens (wait till you see her in a star-spangled bikini), and they sing well to boot. The director, Felix van Groeningen, adopts a clean, classic style of camera work and tells the story with real drive. You’ll be hard-pressed not to be entertained and moved.
But there is a problem with Broken Circle Breakdown. The best melodramas, behind the intensity of their plot and characterization, vibrate with subtle themes. The theme of Broken Circle Breakdown, basically reason versus religion, is even more melodramatic than its child-dying-of-cancer storyline.
On the one hand, you have the paradox of Didier’s character. He’s in love with America and bluegrass, both of which are steeped in religion. At the same time, he’s adamant about his European atheism and regards religion as an impediment to the kind of scientific research that could save his child. Didier can’t envision permanence (he argues that people inevitably come to regret tattoos), yet he longs for a committed marriage (he wants his name permanently tattooed on Elise).
On the other hand, you have Elise who deals with the suffering of their child by turning to superstition. Just as she does with the names of her lovers, she joyously tattoos her body with various religious symbols and then writes over them whenever she changes her mind. The mutable world is her delight and ultimately her despair.
The breakdown of Didier and Elise’s marriage over the suffering of their child is played out almost exclusively as the clash of his reason and her spirituality. You get lots of discussion about what happens to birds when they die. In the most over-the-top scene, Didier, to the horror of Elise, gives a crazed sermon denouncing God at the band’s biggest concert to date.
I know that many people in America and almost everyone in Europe get legitimately worked up about why God allows cancer and why George W. Bush didn’t allow stem-cell research. But I find this reason-versus-religion stuff tiresome. It strikes me as a lamentable feature of our age to pit the worst of “reason” (soulless techno-science) against the worst of “religion” (creationist nonsense).
The great tradition of American popular music, from bluegrass to country, from blues to jazz, from gospel to soul, is deeply rooted in the church. No God, no good music—at least not much. Make of that what you will. I give credit to Broken Circle Breakdown for acknowledging this awkward truth for atheists.
My problem with the film is that the over-determined thematic oppositions distance rather than immerse us in its powerful emotional center, the main characters’ love and music. The movie is based on a play by Heldenbergh, who is also the male lead in both the staged production, and has a certain amount of theatrical heavy-handedness that rarely translates well to the screen.
Fortunately, the good elements of The Broken Circle Breakdown generally overwhelm the melodramatic theme. On top of a well-told story of love and loss, you get attractive people having steamy sex and Dutch-speaking Belgians somehow playing good bluegrass. Not a bad deal.
Scott Samuelson teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College and blogs about music with his son at billyanddad.wordpress.com.