Belgian Best Foreign Film nominee is not about bluegrass music, as it has been widely billed. Yes, the two main characters are bluegrass musicians and there are several musical performances that feature in the film, but you could substitute the bluegrass elements with any number of different things without having much of an impact on the film itself. Rather, "Broken Circle" is a particularly brutal love story about two people who suffer through enormous hardship that tests their commitment to each other and their deepest held beliefs.
We first meet Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) visiting their young daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) in the hospital. Maybelle has cancer and has to undergo difficult treatments. Then we flash back seven years to when Elise and Didier were a pair of carefree young artists just beginning their courtship. The narrative continues to switch back and forth between past and present, revealing the course of their relationship throughout the years. Though they remain very much in love, they have fundamentally different approaches to life, and have very different - though equally destructive - reactions to a series of traumatic events.
There are a lot of parallels between "Broken Circle Breakdown" and "Blue Valentine," another recent film that juxtaposed the happy beginning of a romantic relationship with its later decline and breakdown after marriage and children. However, "Blue Valentine" is largely about how the central relationship proves to be unsustainable as the two people who share it grow and change. In "Broken Circle," it's outside forces that wreak havoc on a happy, stable marriage. This provides the impetus for a much swifter disillusionment with far more damaging results. The possible split is anything but inevitable for Didier and Elise. The drama is so involving because the couple always seems capable of pulling through together, and clearly have a relationship worth saving. "Broken Circle" is one of the most emotionally grueling films I've sat through in some time, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
I found the film's spiritual themes were handled particularly well. Didier is an atheist who struggles to explain death to Maybelle. Elise is not especially religious but she finds comfort in spirituality. The film doesn't make a case for either for either of their worldviews, but rather extends sympathy for both sides. Both of the characters find their beliefs challenged, and neither are immune from self-doubt and anger, lashing out and looking for targets to blame in the wake of Maybelle's illness. They threaten to turn on each other and themselves, clashing over how to handle the emotional fallout in fairly realistic fashion. Both of the leads deliver utterly wrenching performances. Heldenbergh is the standout though, especially in the quieter moments. Didier initially seems steadier and better equipped to handle the situation, which makes his subsequent breakdown all the more affecting.
The use of the bluegrass music initially seems a little incongruous, but it provides some nice aesthetic and thematic touches that recur throughout the film. Elise and Didier connect through the music, and many of the songs about lost love and bad times make for a fitting soundtrack to their present-day woes. The actors do their own singing for the musical numbers, all of it in English, no less. Otherwise the film doesn't really get into the bluegrass culture much beyond showing the characters in American flag-patterned clothing, so the music largely stays in the background. It certainly helps to make "Broken Circle" distinctive, but doesn't define it. It's only near the very, very end of the film that the music briefly becomes a truly vital part of the story.
As with far too many foreign films, I'm completely unfamiliar with the talent involved. This is Flemish director Felix van Groeningen's fourth film, and it's a wonderfully self-assured, gorgeous looking piece of work. I especially like the way that he flashes forward and backward repeatedly to certain events that only make sense with the context of other events that are revealed gradually. That way the audience has some sense of what's going to happen without losing the impact of the actual moment when we reach that point in the story. There's some stylization of the visuals, mostly in the editing, but nothing overly indulgent or distracting.
In a jam-packed year, this is one of my favorites, and I was a little miffed to discover that it is technically a 2012 film according to the way I count release dates. And I'm not prepared to give it the "Plus One" spot on my upcoming 2013 ten list, usually reserved for the best films I saw too late to qualify, because "The Act of Killing" has that all sewn up. So I have to leave it out of the usual year-end passing out of kudos. However, I give the movie the highest possible recommendation, for those of you who can stand a trip through the emotional wringer, and need a little more bluegrass in your life.