American country music is the closest that the post-colonial United States have to a popular folk music of their own, an art form by the people for the people, speaking of hard lives, hope, love, family, heartbreak and pain. Probably that's why the best country songs are true blue-collar folk music, short stories or short films in musical form, that resonate globally beyond the American borders. And that's why the form makes perfect sense to help tell a love story from beginning to end, even if the setting is hardly the hard-bitten Appalachian mountains but rural Belgium, and the couple singing of their love isn't descendant of working-class immigrants but middle-class folk from Ghent with a passion for country and bluegrass.

     The fact is, if it weren't for the music, Belgian director Felix van Groeningen's The Broken Circle Breakdown would be an old-fashioned three-handkerchief-melodrama, disguising its narrative classicism behind a fragmented narrative that jumps between different periods of the couple's life together. The meet-cute between musician Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens) actually takes place more than halfway through, and it is he who introduces her to the joys of the music and finds in her a kindred spirit in so many ways.

     But things are never that simple; The Broken Circle Breakdown actually begins when the couple's seven-year old daughter Maybelle (Nell Catrysse) is about to be diagnosed with a serious illness, with editor Nico Leunen's fluid time-jumping seeking for rhymes and contrasts that will illuminate Elise and Didier's love and the obstacles they have to surmount. A key theme of the film, based on an award-winning stage play co-written by Mr. Heldenbergh, is how the "American Dream" that has always been such a huge part of Didier's worldview is merely an illusion - there isn't one American dream but many, all different, and the intervention of 9/11 helps build a wedge between Didier's cheerful optimism and Elise's guarded pessimism, leading her to seek solace in religion at the hardest points. But America is really just a substitute for our own dreams and aspirations, and for the constant struggle between desires and real life that the film depicts with more or less commitment.

     In lesser or less attuned hands, The Broken Circle Breakdown could be a bummer of a sudser, but Mr. Van Groeningen is very sympathetic both to its actors and to the presence of music. The songs, mostly country and bluegrass classics from the repertoire of Bill Monroe, Townes van Zandt or Emmylou Harris, are used as both comment and narrative device, propelling the arc of the tale and used as shorthand for the emotions evoked. And both Ms. Baetens and Mr. Heldenbergh (a Kris Kristofferson lookalike if there ever was one) are extraordinary, holding the film's demanding emotional arc together without any apparent effort. For all that, take away the music and the editing and The Broken Circle Breakdown loses part of its charm and appeal - which suggests that Mr. Van Groeningen and his co-writers made the right choice. The music is what lifts the film and makes it just more than a curio.

Cast: Johan Heldenbergh, Veerle Baetens, Nell Catrysse
Director: Felix van Groeningen
Screenwriters: Carl Joos, Mr. Van Groeningen, Charlotte Vandermeersch, from the stage play by Mr. Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels, The Broken Circle Breakdown Featuring the Cover-Ups of Alabama
Cinematography: Ruben Impens  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Bjorn Eriksson
Designer: Kurt Rigolle
Costumes: Ann Lauwerys
Editor: Nico Leunen
Producer: Dirk Impens (Menuet Productie and Topkapi Films)
Belgium/The Netherlands, 2012, 112 minutes

Screened: Distributor advance press screening, Cinema City Alvalade 2, Lisbon, February 19th 2014

Nominated for the 2013 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award


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