“Things have to change”
If there is one universal constant in life, it’s the unavoidable fact that death changes us. It may not be irreversible or immediate, but feeling that loss along with the first-hand experience of our tragic mortality is something we simply can’t ignore. The love we had for the person now gone either grows in our memory or eats away through guilt or regret for being helpless to prevent his/her fate. We wish we could have gone in their place, wonder why we’re still here, and mourn in our own personal ways depending on religion, culture, and faith. There are screams of depression and agony, declarations filled with vitriol to manifest our pain, and oftentimes a wall built to separate us from those still present. The loss is universal, our disparate actions vast and deceivingly potent.
Set against a backdrop of infectiously moving bluegrass—a mix of original work from Bjorn Eriksson as well as his new arrangements of classic Americana—The Broken Circle Breakdown gets to its audience’s hearts by forcing them to confront their ideals and understand the consequences wrought by projecting them onto others while blinded by sorrow. Originated as a play by Johan Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels, the piece has evolved into Belgium’s newly-anointed best-selling album ever, a sold-out European tour, and the country’s 2014 Foreign Oscar hopeful. Regardless of the music’s quality, though, it’s the story these songs bolsters that can’t help but touch your soul. A tragic romance full of laughs and tears, we’ve all met a Didier (Heldenbergh) and Elise (Veerle Baetens) at one time or another if not embody their struggles ourselves.
They are a banjo-playing singer and a tattoo artist respectively who found each other and fell in love. His hopeless romantic can’t help himself when caught in her gaze, warming her realist into believing love might exist after all. Their union creates a daughter named Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) who serves as the constant that brings them together despite their differences—cementing Elise’s acceptance of this new life being real and thawing Didier’s selfishness into unparalleled warmth and security for his two most prized possessions. But as the sheen of hope and joy evaporates to expose a startling reality of unjust suffering, the disparity between their intrinsic belief systems becomes unavoidably damaging as they attempt to cope. Once Maybelle’s equalizer grows ill from cancer, the prospect of her loss hits them like a ton of bricks.
Co-written by Carl Joos and director Felix Van Groeningen, the story unfolds via an emotional chronology rather than one based on time. We meet the couple as they escort young Maybelle to the hospital for her fateful blood work to learn about the road they’re about to face right before rewinding back to the night of her conception seven years previous. Their experiences shift from present strife, the past’s unbridled optimism, and their on-stage performances of songs purposely set to infer upon each new obstacle and their reactions to them. Life fades into death, sorrow to hope, and a love for America to a hatred of its conservative government’s periphery role in their pain. It’s a powerful journey that tests their strength and vows until they can no longer avoid what may have been inevitable from the start.
What’s interesting, however, is that on top of the usual tropes a couple in love faces when saddled by an insurmountable tragedy comes a rather biting commentary on the creationists versus evolutionists debate. With a stem cell treatment providing one of the film’s key emotional catalysts in Dider and Elise’s relationship, the question of blame for their daughter’s fate goes beyond what they as parents could or couldn’t have prevented. And for a father who can’t even tell Maybelle the soul of the dead bird that flew into their teranda is in “heaven” when she asks because he doesn’t believe in an afterlife, the idea people in power are able to hide behind church morality in order to stop progress on the one thing able to save the girl’s life is impossible to accept.
This is the disconnect risking to tear Didier and Elise apart—their core beliefs not allowing them to let the other grieve the way they need to if the time were to come that they must. Music, sexual desire, and love may put them into each other’s arms, but a joint existence in marriage needs more to sustain itself than the drunken stupor of hormones and attraction. And just as a child can provide that commonality with which to sacrifice oneself for family, it can also isolate them back into a state of futility and self-doubt. Some need to let death be finite so they may refocus their attention on those still by their sides, others must believe it’s merely the next step to a brighter existence they too will one day achieve.
So while we believe the couple indestructible with how they handle themselves in Maybelle’s presence, the question of that bird’s soul opens a door to the truth of their fragility. While Heldenbergh and Baetens are electric making love or smiling with pure affection from across the stage, their raw interactions once societal decency is rendered moot so that unfiltered emotion can reign supreme will break your heart. His anger blinds him from seeing her pain as her guilt refuses to forgive his seeming ease at letting the most important thing in their lives disappear forever. The flashbacks begin to shed light on their intrinsic differences as their present-day love disintegrates out of their control. Their toe-tapping ditties evolve into sorrowful ballads and the false hope of immortality exposes how short our time on earth truly is.
THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN distributed by Tribeca Film.