Groeningen’s tale is based upon the play by Johan Heldenbergh, who plays one of the main characters, Didier alongside the stunning, Veerle Baetens as his wife, Elise and the incredibly talented, Nell Cattrysse as their daughter, Maybelle. The Broken Circle Breakdown is a tough but hugely powerful tale of a life and death of a relationship. Groeningen doesn’t follow a linear chronology with his film but rather tells the story through the most integral of moments, drip feeding information to the audience about what happens when two people fall so deeply in love.
The film is quick to establish the sad news that Maybelle has been diagnosed with cancer and that the first step of treatment is chemotherapy. In just the opening moments, the audience are already aware what to expect from this film. In one of the most touching of openings, Elise takes Didier out of their daughters hospital room to explain that their crying is for home and that whilst they are in the hospital, they are positive and smile in front of their daughter. Cattrysse’s performances as their ill daughter is often the most emotionally raw part of the film; she is always aware of her own condition even if no one around her will talk about it. During one of the brief periods of time when she is allowed home from the hospital, a bird flies into a window and dies. The little girl picks it up and cannot understand why the bird would have flown straight into something that would kill it; she also wanted to know what would happen to the bird now that it had died because she understood that it may happen to her soon. This is where another theme of the film introduces itself – Didier believes once you are dead that is it, but you cannot turn around to a little girl and say that so he has to smile and agree with her story that one of the stars is now where the bird is.
This theme of understanding death, alongside religion and the sometimes hypocrisy thereof is constantly haunting the characters of the film. For Didier and Elise, they stand on different side of the argument, and it takes a long time for Didier to understand that sometimes you have to just believe to make yourself feel better because sometimes, the truth can be too hard and quite often is for Elise, leading to the tragic ending. Alongside this is also the ghost of recent American socio-political history; where the terror of 9/11 and President Bush’s decision on stem cell therapy also hugely affects the characters of the film.
Whilst the first half of the film deals with Maybelle’s illness and gradual death, the second half faces the repercussions for the couple. But whilst the narrative is constantly going forward, the audience are also taken back to different points in the couples lives; from their initial meeting, to finding out they are pregnant and their make shift wedding. Music is also another important element of the film, whilst the couple initially bond over bluegrass music and Didier’s love for all things country from the USA. This tension between the traditional USA and the more recent issues, is forever pulling at Didier and often guides him in his decisions. Didier is part of a bluegrass band, who sing English songs to often large crowds. When Elise and him become serious, she joins the band and becomes their lead singer; beautiful, sensual and hugely talented, she often sets the stage and the screen alight. The songs appear at the best of moments, often at times when the tension has become too much or to mark the most important events in the film.
Groeningen’s direction is haunting and delicate; often contrasting the happier moments in the couple’s life to the sadder. His lighting is intense and adds another level to the intricacies of the film, indicating the different points in the chronology of the relationship. As for the acting, the three main stars simply blow many other performances this year out of the water. Heldenbergh and Baetens chemistry is sexy and wrought with emotion whilst at the same time, fully understanding how they should look at each other throughout the film; their eyes often say more than their words. There is very little hyperbole in the film and the film really does take the audience on the ups and downs of a real life romance without falling into melodramatic fantasy.
The Broken Circle Breakdown is an important, cathartic experience for the audience; with outstanding performances and an intensely written script, which all should see and admire.