Love and tragedy, to a bluegrass beat, in ‘Broken Circle Breakdown’
Review • Belgian drama boasts fine cast and a sharp structure.
Published: February 28, 2014 12:09PM
Updated: February 27, 2014 04:21PM
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Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) share a passionate romance, followed by marriage and parenthood, in the Belgian drama "The Broken Circle Breakdown." Courtesy Tribeca Film

The minor-key strains of American folk music permeate the Belgian drama “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” one of this year’s foreign-language Oscar nominees and a movie with enough heartbreak for a dozen folk songs.

We meet Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh, who co-wrote the play on which the film is based) in 2006, in a hospital room where their 6-year-old daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), is enduring needle pricks and other discomforts. We soon glean the clues that Maybelle is undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia — and that Elise and Didier’s marriage is in as rough a shape as their daughter’s health.

Director Felix Van Groeningen and his co-scriptwriter, Carl Joos, then pull the narrative apart and reassemble it out of chronological order. They show us Elise, a tattoo artist, when she first hears Didier, a banjo player in a bluegrass band, performing in a bar. Then they show us the first time they make love, and the happy aftermath as she explains the stories behind her many tattoos.

Forward and backward on the timeline, and the movie picks out more important moments: the day Elise tells Didier she’s pregnant, the way Elise gradually is accepted as the singer in Didier’s band, Didier’s ongoing project to turn an old church into a livable home, and the first diagnosis of Maybelle’s cancer — an event that consumes all three of their lives.

Along the way, there is an overt message about faith and religion. Elise is quietly Christian, passing to Maybelle a crucifix her family has worn for generations. Didier is an atheist who becomes angered by conservative Christians who oppose the stem-cell research that could save Maybelle’s life. His wrath flares out mainly at the American president, George W. Bush (seen in news footage as he vetoes funding on stem-cell research), a paradox for a man who idolizes America and its bluegrass music.

Van Groeningen underlines the quiet tragedy of this story with the music of Didier and Elise’s performances. These spouses can’t talk about their heartache and loss to each other, but they can express those feelings through the old songs.

Heldenbergh exudes a rough-and-tumble charm as Didier, whose romantic idealism takes a beating over the course of his life. He’s neatly matched by Baetens, a beauty whose outer toughness masks a touching vulnerability. Together, they are amazing and make “The Broken Circle Breakdown” a poignant drama that earns its many tears.

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‘The Broken Circle Breakdown’

A couple’s passionate start and their child’s battle with cancer are chronicled through a shared love of American folk music in this touching Belgian drama.

Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas

When • Opens today

Rating • Not rated, but probably R for strong sexuality and language.

Running time • 111 minutes; dialogue in Flemish, with subtitles; songs in English.