Made in 2012 but released at film festivals in 2013, the Belgium Oscar Academy nominee for an international language film, The Broken Circle Breakdown, should be up for the main award in its own right; it’s an art-house masterpiece, maximizing the medium of cinema through sight, sounds, brilliant dialogue, symbolism, superb lead performances and great intelligence, bringing to life a story full of impact and big themes.
While music is a fire that burns throughout The Broken Circle Breakdown, it is essentially a film about life and death. Told with a mix of flashbacks and non-chronological editing that skips further forward before the viewer has got there, not a shot is wasted by director Felix Van Groeningen in his adaptation from the original play by Johan Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels.
Heldenbergh plays the main male lead, Didier, a charming and intelligent bluegrass frontman, obsessed with American music whose life takes on another dimension when he is attracted enough to walk into a high street tattoo parlour run by Veerle Baetens’ Elise.
Baeten’s performance and versatility are so strong, she has not only deserved every award that has come her way in the months since this film has been released, she should also be walking off with the Academy Award, no questions asked. Her character’s tattoos track an already eventful but relatively young life before Didier enters her shop, but during the course of the film Elise finds life serves further bruises that won’t heal and can’t be inked over.
While the story has tragedy running through it, the moments of comedy are golden, with both the dialogue and emotion translating well; Didier sheds light into a dark county house not just through his attempts at creating a clear glass door patio, bringing perspective and humour to a painful situation as he seeks logical answers to the couple’s problems.
As the film nears its conclusion, Didier’s dialogue becomes more detailed and hardened, intellectually challenging the audience to look at the broader picture that allows a child like his and Elise’s to become ill, terminally. Elise meanwhile wants to change identity, wash away the recent past as the differences between her and Didier start to become more prominent than the commonality that brought them together, threatening to fracture even their semi-professional life on the road in a bluegrass band that seemingly remains the only glue that holds the relationship.
There are no easy answers but Didier maintains the future is unwritten and his passion is inspiring, like the film. The Broken Circle Breakdown, shot in widescreen and with a wonderful soundtrack, is ambitious, beautiful, expressive and a reminder how great cinema can be.
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