Published on November 24th, 2013 | by Craig Silliphant


The Broken Circle Breakdown

Sometimes, the masochist in us compels us to watch movies filled with soul-crushing melancholy.  Dramas like Snow Falling on Cedars, Haneke’s Amour, Bergman’s Winter Light, or even the animated depressfest Grave of the Fireflies.  Is it that each one of us has moments in our lives that are so sad we can identify with characters in such films?  Or is it escapist?  That somehow, our lives don’t seem as bad in comparison?  Either way, if you love bumming yourself out (and you love bluegrass music) The Broken Circle Breakdown is for you.

I don’t want to give away too much, but let’s just say it’s about a bluegrass musician and a tattoo artist who have a daughter that becomes gravely ill.  It takes place against the backdrop of the Belgian bluegrass scene.  It raises some questions of faith, or lack thereof, and the politics of stem cell research in curing disease.

There is a scene in the film where the father, Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) is forced to explain to his daughter what happens to a bird that has died after crashing into their terranda (a compromise between a terrace and a veranda, which features prominently in the film).  It’s her first experience with death, and he must fight the conflict within himself.  He doesn’t believe in God or an afterlife — but he’s also dealing with an upset child, one that is having her own experiences with a possibly terminal illness.  It’s scenes like this where the movie is at its best.

The movie also rides the long, hard road thanks to the chemistry of the leads.  Both Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens (who plays Elise, the mother) hand in strong performances.  They radiate joy or dwell in subtle sadness, depending on where they are in the story.  The before mentioned terranda goes from being a goofy marriage in-joke, to being a weapon of words that cuts deeper than any knife.  The actors are utterly believable in the midst of the blasé details of their lives, as love turns to blame, and lives are torn asunder.  Didier affects a decent amount of rage as the film progresses, mostly at political zealots (George W. Bush takes a beating here) that hold back medical research for religious reasons.  His fury injects something seething and alive to the film, but it also feels jammed in there unceremoniously, and one particular scene seems to come out of nowhere and feels extremely forced (you’ll know which scene I mean when you see it).

Good films establish a world, a milieu, and The Broken Circle Breakdown gets a rich texture from being set in the bluegrass world.  Music gives us elation in life, and it keeps the movie from being relentlessly bleak like Winter Hours or Breaking the Waves.  That being said, as with the stem cell research themes, the movie might have benefited from giving us more of this world, instead of the occasional musical interlude and scenes with the band, who mostly come off as ciphers.

The film has an interesting, non-linear structure, like memory, like scenes from a marriage, flashing back and forth through good times and bad.  However, sometimes this technique works to reveal information or give you good transitions, and sometimes it fails miserably.  Some scenes feel dropped in poorly, and sometimes the jumbled construction stifles scenes, keeping them from coming to crescendos, jumping right into emotions without building to them or earning them.  This can work to jarring effect in some films, but here it’s rarely executed well.  I wonder what this movie would have looked like had it been mostly linear?

The Broken Circle Breakdown has its flaws — perhaps it should have fleshed out more ideas, rather than relying on what it incorrectly sees as ‘clever’ structure.  And the ending probably lapses too far into silly melodrama, forced like other elements of the movie.  However, those niggles aside, there is a great story at the heart of the film, and the important, raw emotions shine through any gauze of confusion it’s wrapped in.  It is a unique film that shows us a slice of not only another part of the world, but the ups and downs of the lives that inhabit that world.  And for those masochists in the theatre that want to identify with heartbroken characters, or escape from their own misery for a couple of hours, The Broken Circle Breakdown fits the bill.

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About the Author

is a D-level celebrity with delusions of grandeur. A writer, critic, creative director, editor, broadcaster, and occasional filmmaker, his thoughts have appeared on radio, television, in print, and on the web. He is a juror on the Polaris Music Prize and the Juno Awards. He loves Saskatoon. He has horrible night terrors and apocalyptic dreams.

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