4.5 stars
Opposites attract, until they don't. There's the heart-breaking lesson in Johan Heldenbergh's gruelling yet strangely uplifting adaptation of his own play, The Broken Circle Breakdown. As Didier, he's one half of a staggeringly passionate couple who live near Ghent, Belgium. He and Elise (Veerle Baetens) restore an old farmhouse when they're not playing in a bluegrass band, a shared passion that brings together two people who couldn't be more different – she's heavily tattooed, he's a clean skin, she's retro-punk, he's neo-hippie. But the one thing that binds them is an unflinching love for their daughter Maybelle and that would be a thing of beauty if not for cancer.

Director Felix van Groeningen has created a highly textured film that turns on his ability to jumble time lines and maintain a strong narrative drive. He takes us up and down a tumultuous decade from when Didier and Elise first meet until Maybelle's death, and beyond. That's not a spoiler, the crushing inevitability of this film is one of its strengths. The Broken Circle Breakdown is muscular, visceral and even in its darkest moments, an engrossing experience.

Music is integral to the film's rhythm which is punctuated by the soulful tunes of Didier's band as they perform to crowds large and small. Aptly, it is at one of their biggest shows that he has his biggest meltdown, a vitriolic spray that becomes the catalyst for the film's most heart-wrenching scenes. Yet van Groeningen is not a manipulative director, he doesn't succumb to the obvious grabs that a kid-with-cancer film might leap for (I'm looking at you My Sister's Keeper). While this is a three-hankie weep-fest, it's one that earns its emotional response. Imagine an atheist father explaining the afterlife to his daughter on her deathbed.

Ultimately The Broken Circle Breakdown is about the vacuum left when opposites that once attracted beautifully repel one another violently; about the torrent of anguish that fills a space when two lives are gruesomely torn apart. Because it is as horrific as it is life affirming, it is also one of the year's finer films.


Previewed at Sony Pictures Theatrette, Sydney, on 10 March 2014

4 stars

The Broken Circle Breakdown, directed by Felix van Groeningen (The Misfortunates), was Belgium’s official submission for Best Foreign Film at the 2014 Oscars and it’s easy to see why. It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride involving two loving parents and their sick child and the effect her illness has on them. The film raises issues about birth, death, religion, parenthood, even the stance taken by George W. Bush opposing stem cell research, and brings them all together in a drama that cross-cuts between feelings of love, sorrow and anger as the tragic tale unfolds.

Somewhere in contemporary Belgium, Didier (Johan Heldenbergh, who co-wrote and acted in the original play) spies the gorgeous, heavily inked Elise (Veerle Baetens) working in a tattoo parlour and asks her to come along to a bluegrass gig the following Friday night. Elise is charmed by the charismatic stranger, turns up and is surprised to see that in fact he is the leader of the band. A relationship develops and the polar opposites – he is an atheist who doesn’t believe in the intangible, in whatever form one wishes to dress it up, while Elise is more open to the unknown – form a bond which leads to them living together and having a child, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse).

Elise is like a walking canvas - she has tattoos over a large part of her body and many of them represent the events of her life; for example, she regularly had her current boyfriend’s name inked on her somewhere and, when the relationship is over, blithely put another tattoo over the top. Didier, although not into having tatts himself, fully appreciates his companion’s living opus and is totally smitten by her. He also appreciates her beguiling voice which is well suited to bluegrass and soon she becomes the lead singer of his band. Their adored daughter, although initially not wanted by Didier because he didn’t want to take on the role of God in the welfare of a living being, completes their circle of happiness. Shockingly though, at the age of six Maybelle is diagnosed with cancer, which blows their unconventional but largely blissful life apart. This devastating event creates a whole new scenario in their lives and, as Maybelle’s health starts to disintegrate, so does their happy family bond. Elise and Didier enter a dark space that makes for a heart-wrenching cinematic experience as their opposite views on life and religion, once a source of amusement, start to tear them apart.

Tech credits are uniformly excellent. The editing of The Broken Circle Breakdown is simply superb as Nico Leunen (The Misfortunates) cross-cuts back and forth between time and place. Van Groeningen freely acknowledges his debt to his long-time collaborator and says, “The main reason, I guess, is that my films are not plotted story-wise but emotion-wise. And there are always a lot of things that work very different [sic] on screen (as opposed to on paper), so questioning all this during editing has become an inevitable part of my filmmaking process.” Ruben Impens’s cinematography moves seamlessly between brightly lit interior scenes where Maybelle is lying ravaged from the effects of her treatment in a hospital bed to exteriors that capture the Belgian countryside in magnificent clarity. Bjorn Eriksson’s score is integral to the film, sometimes directly driving the narrative and, at others, underlining the protagonists’ emotional journey.

The performances, too, are all superb and the three leads magically bring the relationship between Elise, Didier and Maybelle to life - how the heck does a five-year-old have so much talent, especially when you take into account her ability to perform some of the distressing scenes in the hospital? The script provides some impassioned monologues (not surprising given its theatrical origins), especially Didier’s rant against George W. Bush’s fundamentalist reasoning for not further exploring stem cell research, an attitude he finds incomprehensible coming from a president who sees nothing wrong in spending billions on war machinery. This is a film not to be missed, but be warned and pack a tissue or two to mop up the tears shed not only in the sad bits, but also because of the injustice that you will bear witness to. It’s a sad truth that sometimes love is just not able to overcome misfortune.


Previewed at Sony Pictures Theatrette, Sydney, on 8 May 2014

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Johan Heldenbergh
Veerle Baetens
Nell Cattrysse

Felix van Groeningen

Carl Joos
Felix van Groeningen


Belgium / Netherlands (subtitles)


110 minutes

May 15, 2014
The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012) on IMDb
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