Thursday, October 03, 2013

Gathr Preview Screening: The Broken Circle Breakdown

It was a last-minute thing, but Gathr and the Regent Theatre did something kind of cool by having local bluegrass band Southern Rail there for a forty-five minute set before this bluegrass-infused film.

It was a nifty way to start the night; I've never been a particular fan of the style, but it was a nice show. The folks in the front row seemed to be friends/fans of the band, and either left or moved to the back after their set. The band themselves, though, seemed pretty excited to see the film.

I hope they knew what they were getting into. The Broken Circle Breakdown is a pretty great movie, Belgium's submission for the "Best Foreign Language Film" category at the Academy Awards. I'm not sure why they still persist with that system, as this one would be eligible even if they were using the same rules as everyone else. It's scheduled for release in the US on 1 November, although I don't know when it will reach Boston.

Unlike a lot of the Gathr previews, I knew something about this one going in - it was a selection at Fantasia, but I had conflicts both times it screened - with Lesson of the Evil the first time and the tail end of of Library Wars the second. The folks I talked to who did see it, though, raved about it, particularly Kurt Halfyard. I still did expect it to be quite as good as it was, though.

The eFilmCritic review goes into most of why, but I would like to talk about the end after the review.

The Broken Circle Breakdown

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 1 October 2013 at the Regent Theatre (Gathr Preview Series, digital)

Just about everybody who buys a ticket for The Broken Circle Breakdown will know going in that it's designed to break his or her heart, but how and how much is easily underestimated. Director Felix Van Groeningen and company construct their tale of love, bluegrass music, and disaster so well that it's sometimes hard to tell whether the moments of joy make the tragedies worse or bearable.

The film opens with a song and then moves to 2007, where Elise Vandevelde (Veerle Baetens) and Didier Bontnick (Johan Heldenbergh) are in the hospital with their six-year-old daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), only to be told that the tests are positive, and she has cancer. Just as that's really sinking in, it's 2001, when Didier & Elise spent their first night together in a camper on his run-down farm just outside Ghent. Though Didier has no interest in getting tattoos from Elise's shop, she's soon a member of his bluegrass group, and it seems like nothing could be more powerful than their love.

Star Johan Heldenbergh co-wrote the play that this picture was based upon, although that must be a very different thing from the film. Van Groeningen and his collaborators do a number of screen-specific things very well, with the most important and noteworthy being how things are cut together. The Broken Circle Breakdown may be the best-edited film you'll see for some time, with Van Groeningen and editor Nico Leunen doing something impressive at just about every level: There's not a scene that feels flabby or like it's missing anything. Montages (often keyed to a lyric-heavy song that doesn't leave a lot of room for error) deliver information concisely without slowing down or doling out exposition. The time period shifts back and forth without the need for on-screen titles, always showing the events that are most appropriate right at that moment, even if it's not always the obvious choice. Questions and events can be left dangling in the air without the feeling of cheap, artificial suspense.

Full review at EFC.


One thing that intrigued and rather impressed me was how religion and the lack thereof figured into the latter acts of the picture. Didier is an atheist, and while Elise isn't particularly religious, she sort of uses it as the default setting the way many people do. Heck, even Didier does, in a certain way, feeling he can't simply be matter-of-fact about death with his daughter, and that would probably be the case if she weren't dying as well. It's a scary, difficult thing to acknowledge that the universe does not have a special place picked out for you, and it can be hard to make the leap from that to all life being even more precious because of it. Similarly, I love the metaphor he later makes to Maybelle about how the light from a dead star continues to spread throughout the universe forever, but it is a metaphor rather than assurance.

And yet, for all that I think Didier's perspective gets a little more play than Elise's, the amazing thing is that the movie features him losing his faith. He doesn't believe in God, but he does believe in America, with the sort of true belief that doesn't need to be expressed fervently. It's why he loves bluegrass, though - as he describes its origins, it represents an idealized version of America, where people from many lands join together to make something beautiful. It overlooks that they all came together by being parts of the underclass, of course, and he doesn't quite notice how President Bush is invoking God when making his post-9/11 speech. It's not until after Bush is vetoing stem cell research that he really sees that the thing he has faith in is just as problematic as conventional religion.

In some ways, I'm still chewing on the end. On the one hand, Didier is still alive - that he's been abandoned by his dream of America sucks, but it's a manageable betrayal. There's no potential comfort in death for him, and that there's no meaning to life but what he gives it means that said meaning can't be yanked away like it has been for Elise. But on the other hand, this world view has left him alone without any sort of solace. It's no wonder he eventually asks Elise to say hello to Maybelle; this is exactly the sort of situation where one grasps at anything. And we, the audience, have already seen some sort of spirit, ghost, or out of body experience for Elise at that point. Maybe it's an admission that there is some sort of afterlife, or maybe Didier (and the audience) creates it because they need to.

What's most impressive, though, is that Van Groeningen creates the same sort of impulses in the audience. Maybe any given viewer believes in God, maybe he or she doesn't. The funny thing is, though, even the most religious will often decry the heavy hand of a creator when watching a film or reading a book; we expect the author to "play fair" as opposed to pulling something completely external out at the last minute. And yet, in the last moments of The Broken Circle Breakdown, we're playing for a miracle - we want there to be some way to return Elise's spirit to her body. We can feel ourselves willing it to happen, even though we might feel like it would be betraying the movie's themes. And in making the audience go through with it, the filmmakers have demonstrated just how innate this impulse toward belief in a higher power is, even for those who think it causes many of the world's ills.

That's an extraordinary accomplishment on the part of the filmmakers, I think, and it's arguably not even the primary focus of the film.


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