Each year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences releases a shortlist of foreign language films that are eligible for an Academy Award. This year’s shortlist will be announced in late December. For more on how the process works, click here. In anticipation of that event, we will look at 2013’s nine shortlisted films. Last week, we reviewed the eventual Oscar winner, The Great Beauty. This week is Belgium’s official selection, The Broken Circle Breakdown.
The country music standard “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” gives The Broken Circle Breakdown it’s name and both the song and the film share themes of grief, loss and the painful finality of death. The film tells the story of the love affair of Elise (Veerle Baetens), a tattoo artist, and Didier ( Johan Heldenbergh), a banjo player in a bluegrass band, from its rapturous beginnings to its tragic end.
The couple meet cute, fall in love to the rollicking strains of (you guessed it) “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” get married by an Elvis impersonator and have a beautiful daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), named for Mother Maybelle Carter, one of the founders of country music. Their happy life of raising chickens and riding in their pickup truck is shattered when Maybelle is diagnosed with cancer. The fallout from Maybelle’s illness drives the plot of this film.
The Broken Circle Breakdown is an odd mixture of genres: part musical, part relationship drama, part ” disease of the week” melodrama with a few hot button issues like human stem cell research thrown in for good measure. Quite frankly, the script, based on a play by Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels, is the weakest element of the film. Human beings are capable of having many complex and conflicting emotions, but they all don’t need to be displayed at the same time and in the same scene. The actors respond to this material by doing some good old-fashioned scenery chewing. At one point, Heldenbergh has a raging meltdown so bombastic it would make even Al Pacino blush.
Director Felix van Groeningen compensates for the overly mawkish storyline by structuring The Broken Circle Breakdown in nonlinear fashion. The film begins at roughly the midpoint of the story and then moves back and forth in time. This is done quite skilfully and it gives the film a resonance it wouldn’t have otherwise; for example, a bitter fight over Maybelle’ s care is followed a few scenes later by a flashback to the day Didier and Elise first meet. They are alternately shy and flirtatious in each other’s company, already starting to fall in love. They, unlike the audience, are unaware how fate and illness will steal their newfound happiness.
The saving grace of The Broken Circle Breakdown is the foot-stomping bluegrass music that serves as the film’s soundtrack. The traditional tunes propel the action forward while also revealing the characters thoughts and emotions. The music is the only escape from the gloom, both for the audience and for the characters, especially the idealistic Didier, who clings to a romanticized view of Appalachian culture and recites the history of mountain music with almost religious fervor.
The Broken Circle Breakdown was one of the five films on the official Oscar ballot and it’s easy to see why (an Academy committee chooses the five official nominees from the nine films on the shortlist). Country music has long been a favorite subject in Hollywood and many a movie star has earned a date with Oscar by strapping on a guitar and pulling out a Southern twang. That being said, The Broken Circle Breakdown was never going to win. The film wades into controversial issues like human stem cell research and atheism that the Academy usually stays far away from. Another strike against the film is that it’s mega-depressing. There’s hardly a moment outside of the music that isn’t full of complete despair. Oscar voters like a little uplift with their tragedies and this sad film doesn’t give anyone a reason to smile through their tears when they leave the theater.
Grade: C plus. The Broken Circle Breakdown is an average melodrama with a hackneyed plot and sometimes hammy acting. The film’s only saving graces are its bluegrass soundtrack and the inventive direction of Groeningen.
The Broken Circle Breakdown is available on DVD and video on demand.
Next week’s film will be Cambodia’s selection, The Missing Picture.