The gut-wrenching indie drama The Broken Circle Breakdown is equal parts biography of a relationship and love letter to bluegrass music, one of the more unexpected combinations filmgoers will encounter this year, especially considering the film’s Belgian origin. Once viewers adjust to the cognitive dissonance between intense Flemish dialogue and English performances of country and bluegrass songs,The Broken Circle Breakdown is a film that will likely stick with them long after the credits roll.
Director Felix Van Groeningen employs nonlinear chronology to break up the story of musician Didier (Johan Heldenbergh, who wrote the play on which the film is based) and tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens), jumping around their life together. The film opens with the two taking their daughter Maybelle to the doctor, then jumps back in time to their first date, bouncing between the progression of their relationship and their daughter’s life-threatening sickness and its aftermath for maximum effect. Peppered throughout are performances by Didier’s bluegrass band, which eventually includes Elise and reflects their romantic relationship.
Early rumblings about The Broken Circle Breakdown compared it to Walk The Line—Van Groeningen has said as much, and Didier references the courtship of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash at one point—but the film’s mixture of relationship drama and music owes more to Once. Even that comparison feels loose, because the specter of Maybelle’s illness hangs heavily over the movie, especially on its two main characters: Didier, an outspoken critic of religious faith, attempts to force cold, unsparing reason on Elise, who finds comfort in what she perceives as signs of a higher power. The irony of the frequently devotional music they play in their band—the film opens with the group performing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?”—is apparently lost on Didier, whose anti-religion rant onstage undercuts the hopeful, affecting rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” that precedes it.
The Broken Circle Breakdown’s disjointed structure can make it difficult to follow, and the subtitles don’t always help (during one argument, Elise accuses Didier of being “jaundiced,” which must mean something else in Flemish), but the narrative threads come together to heartbreaking effect as the film progresses. They’re made more powerful by Van Groeningen’s deft use of music, particularly in a final scene that will likely be one of 2013’s most memorable.