‘The Broken Circle Breakdown’

by Kaori Shoji

Love is supposed to crush you and marriage is the fast track to long-time despair. Such dark truisms are flung about in “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” a Belgian film whose spirit is so 20th-century Americana it may as well be draped in the Stars and Stripes. And those truisms seem so glamorous, recalling John Cassavetes or more recently “Blue Valentine,” wrestling with broken relationships and making the bruises seem gorgeous.

Directed by Felix van Groeningen, “Broken Circle” is an ode to bluegrass and bikinis, tattoos and sex. In many ways, it’s a celebration of the Way America Was, at least as how much of the rest of the world perceived it — an extraordinary land that promised unlimited freedom and bottomless desire. America wasn’t really about happiness, but getting a license to drink and drink from its cup and still feel parched with thirst. The edgy discontent fueled your desire for more — for love and life and romance without end. Enough was never enough, not even the bad stuff.

“Broken Circle” brings together two Belgians bitten with the Americana bug. Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) is a bluegrass musician playing in small clubs and bars when tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens) spots him and is immediately attracted. The two set off on a relationship that’s equal parts nonstop sex and endless music — and as Elise joins Didier’s band as their new vocalist, it feels like the sparks will fly forever. They get married and a baby girl is born. Didier names her Maybelle, after country music legend Maybelle Carter.

The Broken Circle Breakdown (Over the Blue Sky)
Director Felix van Groeningen
Run Time 111 minutes
Language Flemish, English (subtitled in Japanese)

“Broken Circle” takes a loosely structured, nonlinear approach, and the story jumps from one point in the couple’s lives to another. Here they’re taking a shower together, the picture of sexual bliss. Here Didier is enraged and weeping in the car, while Elise stays home with a seriously sick baby. The electric couple must reinvent themselves as capable parents. Easier said than done, since Didier is an atheist who blames science for Maybelle’s suffering, while Elise is a clear-headed Christian who sees what’s coming and wants to prepare for the worst.

Throughout, their music is ever-present, though as Maybelle’s condition worsens, it becomes less of a comfort and more a metaphor of their pain and the irreparable rupture in their union. The refrain from the 1907 hymn “Will the Circle be Unbroken?” plays as if to seal their sorrow: “Is a better home awaiting / In the sky, in the sky?”

Contradictorily, with the music comes the realization that the life Didier and Elise have woven for themselves is astonishing in its beauty. In spite of all that happens (and perhaps because of it), every shot of them together reveals enormous strength and wrenching vulnerability, attesting to a life that is truly lived, moment by agonizing moment.

“You’ll rue the day you were born,” sings Elise, yet she and Didier embrace it all, replete with thorns and unspeakable sadness. “The Broken Circle Breakdown” was nominated for a best foreign-language film Oscar; it didn’t win, but then, such plaudits wouldn’t begin to describe its impact.

For a chance to win one of three pairs of tickets, visit jtimes.jp/film.