Premiering in its home country of Belgium in late 2012, Felix Van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown has run the gamut of festival screenings before reaching Chicago, with an Academy Award nomination and a slew of prestigious festival citations securely in tow. The festival baggage accumulated along the way may steer expectations in one direction, but if The Broken Circle Breakdown promises one thing it’s to produce an unnerving sense of uncertainty. A film detailing the trials and tribulations of a bluegrass band’s lead singers - a husband and wife - is complicated by notions of science and spirituality that make an otherwise straightforward picture possess unexpected heft and poignancy.
Adapted from a stage play of the same name, The Broken Circle Breakdown utilizes a two-prong narrative structure. The first, featuring rosy hues, quick edits, and a pulsing sense of energy, details the courtship period between Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and the subsequent birth of their first child. The second, highlighted by a sterile milieu and protracted movement, circumscribes the effects of loss to its central couple. The structure, fortunately, mitigates any sense of overwhelming melodrama that material of this nature tends to succumb to. While The Broken Circle Breakdown could essentially be understood as a compilation of the peaks and valleys of Elise and Didier’s relationship, Groeningen and co-writer Carl Joos broaden the social landscape by providing intermingling dialogue and images of American culture throughout. Following the loss of their child, Didier becomes a soap box of political rhetoric while Elise ascribes to a more reserved acceptance of the ethereal. Their oppositional worldviews provide one of the film’s more serious inquiries into what can comprise, or in Didier and Elise’s case, sustain a relationship when placed under duress.
Like most reviewers, I was quick to note the similarities between The Broken Circle Breakdown and Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine - Groeningen’s film could have very well been renamed Blue(grass) Valentine without losing its central conceit. But the further I step away from The Broken Circle Breakdown the more I see it as a companion piece to Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis. The musical similarities are clearly at the forefront, but both pictures contend with the pangs of social circumstance and living on the fringes of society. Their tales of woe are extensive studies on the nature of loss and coping, and how it’s never quite possible to get back to where you were before.