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The Broken Circle Breakdown | Review

A Fiery Ring: Van Groeningen Turns to Somber Tragedy For Latest

Felix Van Groeningen The Broken Circle Breakdown RevieewBelgian director Felix Van Groeningen, whose previous three films explore ups and downs between varying familial and romantically inclined relationships, strikes his most somber notes yet with his adaptation of stage play, The Broken Circle Breakdown, which examines the near complete lifeline of a relationship without his customary offbeat reprieves. While the film is Belgium’s submission for Best Foreign Language glory (as was the director’s successful 2009 effort, The Misfortunates), and took home the Best Screenplay and Best Actress award for Veerle Baeten’s commendable turn at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, its most memorable asset is a lead performance from Johan Heldenbergh, who also penned the original play and has worked with Van Groeningen on several past titles.

At first unfolding like one of those rosy hued Douglas Sirk sudsers as it examines the passionate foundations of a likeable and (unlikely) love at first sight relationship between tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), a banjo player in a blue grass band, their history is juxtaposed and jumbled up with their current existence where seven years have passed and their young daughter is being treated for cancer. Amidst all the back and forth, we catch glimpses of two people who are very much in love, which ultimately may not be strong enough to overcome a tragic situation because of the different ways both choose to cope. Religion as a coping mechanism versus atheism, and even a sidelined exploration of European vs. American policies, as dictated with differing religious lens between the regions, also seem to play a hand in this breakdown of a seemingly perfect yet hopelessly tenuous connection between two people.

Unfortunately, it is the film’s tendency to dive headlong into pointed observations of religious zealotry, harpooning easy targets like George Bush and all his ridiculousness, that distract from the dire tragedy executed with considerable prowess from two leads that manage to display an infectious chemistry. Didier and Elise seem to bond over a certain love and longing for Americana, yet juxtaposing their daughter Maybelle’s first steps with news footage from 9/11 comes across as laughable. We already know where their hopes, dreams, and ideals, all poured metaphorically into their baby bundle of American pastiche, are headed.

Certainly, the film’s delectable musical interludes may appeal more to fans of bluegrass music, but the often emotional and heartbreaking lyrics of several numbers are a testament to the film’s ability to transcend tastes and styles. A hysterical on-stage monologue breakdown from the distraught Didier, while well delivered, seems a bit distractingly out of place in a narrative that is otherwise edited together seamlessly as it transcends a gamut of emotional happenings in these people’s lives.

While we learn very little of the supporting players, including Didier’s mother and his band mates, we know precious little about tattoo artist Elise, yet Baetens commands in a performance that is realistic and difficult to like. But it’s Heldenbergh, in a less glamorous role, as a warm anchor that grounds the film, his Didier, like Nicole Kidman’s grieving mother in Rabbit Hole, all the more isolated by a refusal to escape into the opiate of religious fervor to cope with life’s unexplainable sorrows.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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