Following the lives of a free-spirited couple in Belgium is The Broken Circle Breakdown, written and directed by Felix Van Groeningen and based on the play of the same name by Johan Heldenbergh, who also stars in the film. It is an emotionally powerful, often heartbreaking, look at a relationship’s changing fortunes, and Groeningen demonstrates great control in weaving together the disjointed storylines that emerge over the course of their relationship. He is also adept at handling a wide range of moods and emotions, which are effectively complemented by the musical performances of the two leads. The film is a thoughtful, visceral look at loss and grief, and how people in a relationship can be affected by them in different ways.
Didier (Heldenbergh) and Elise (Veerle Baetens) meet one day. Didier is the lead singer of a bluegrass band with an unbridled affection for all things American. Elise works in a tattoo parlour and considers her body a canvas for chronicling her life. They begin a passionate, carefree relationship on Didier’s tranquil countryside property, and Elise joins his bluegrass band. Soon, they are joined by a daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse). However, when Maybelle is diagnosed with cancer at a very young age, their relationship becomes tested. Earlier comments and choices are suddenly re-examined in strained circumstances, and resentment begins to gradually manifest itself.
Much of the film’s emotional impact is undoubtedly due to the chemistry and raw performances of its two lead actors. Heldenbergh brings a natural ease and charisma to the screen that makes Didier relatable, but he also is able to summon a desperate, uncomprehending anger. Baetens similarly imbues her performance with an effortless believability with a range of emotions, from relaxed glee to unrestrained rage. The intimate musical performances are also delightful. Their characters are complex, even flawed, but always compelling to watch.
The strong performances are enhanced by skilful editing. Their relationship unfolds in a fragmented, non-linear fashion, juxtaposing happier moments with painful times. The resulting collage of sorts only heightens the emotional intensity of the film, making scenes more immediate, more engrossing. The disjointed narrative also introduces an element of unpredictability, not only in how their story ends but in how all the pieces eventually fit together.
Ultimately, The Broken Circle Breakdown is a touching, honest look at one couple’s relationship, and all the struggles and hopes that come with it.
The Broken Circle Breakdown is in Australian cinemas from May 15 through Entertainment One.