This year’s LUX Prize winner, Felix van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown from Belgium is utterly charming, moving and tragic. The film follows a couple, Bluegrass musician Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens), over the course of many years, from their first meeting, their falling in love, their marriage and birth of their daughter Maybelle until things start to go wrong after Maybelle loses a battle with cancer.
These are not plot spoilers, because van Groeningen uses a similar structure than the acclaimed 2010 film Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance), jumping back and forth within the chronology of the story, between the blissful early stages of Didier and Elise’s relationship and the heart-breaking end. Seeing this couple, who you grow very fond of quite quickly, due to the extraordinary chemistry between the two leads, fall in love and fall apart simultaneously is all the more painful.
Underneath the romance, which is beautifully played and never gets cheesy, is a compelling, mature examination of grief and spirituality. Didier and Elise have different methods of dealing with the grief and pain of losing their child. The former is an atheist and a rational thinker deals with his despair by working himself up in anger against people opposing bone marrow research, which might been able to save his grief. Elise on the other hand seeks answers in the realm of the spiritual (but never explicitly religious), thinking about, and hoping for an afterlife or a return of Maybelle to earth in a different form, a concept which Didier not only fails to comprehend, but also to accept.
This discussion is enriched by the music. There is a lot of music in this film, and most of the songs are performed onscreen, live and in full, by Didier and his bluegrass band, sometimes joined by Elise. The soundtrack is brilliant in its own right and is without a doubt one of the best of the year (have a listen) but, like every great soundtrack, it also adds to the story. Bluegrass has its roots in the Appalachian region of the USA and is frequently of a deeply spiritual and religious nature, creating an interesting contradiction in terms with Didier’s knee-jerk ideas.
While The Broken Circle Breakdown is probably not going to get the awards recognition it deserves, due to the dominance of the also excellent The Great BeautyI (Paolo Sorrentino), it is a smart, romantic and incredibly sad film, which should be seen by more people.