This is the saddest, most beautiful film I have ever seen. I kind of want to leave it at that, but I’m about to make a huge mess of everything instead by going on, because, you know . . . I’m in a mood. And it put me there. Apologies in advance.
The Broken Circle Breakdown, based on a play cowritten by the film’s hirsute star, Johan Heldenbergh, is about a Flemish man, Didier, who begins the story in love with American bluegrass music, and ends it in love with a tattoo artist named Elise.
They meet at a show he’s playing, and fall head over heels almost immediately. Initially, it’s largely a physical relationship — they want each other desperately, and there’s little time for anything else. But when Elise suddenly becomes pregnant, the relationship is turned upside down, shaken like a cup full of dice in a Yahtzee game. Finally, they manage to overcome their trepidation at making so immutable a commitment to each other, get married, and move in together, beginning the business of living.
One night, as Didier’s playing some of his favorite tunes for Elise, she begins to sing along, timidly at first, then, gauging his reaction, more boldly. He realizes her voice is exactly the thing his band has been missing, and she soon becomes an integral part of the group, bringing harmony both to his life and to his music.
Nine months later, they have their child. Four or five years after that, they lose her.
And then they lose everything else.
This isn’t a spoiler, I wouldn’t say, by the way — the story is told in a series of flash-backs and -forwards, jumping back and forth through various stages of their relationship, so you know what’s coming, for the most part, long before you get there.
That’s why, in fact, it took me over 2 months to watch this movie all the way through. After the first 30 minutes or so, I had to stop every ten and wait another week before continuing. It was that difficult to watch, that difficult to feel, to experience. I have never lost a child, and I can’t even begin to imagine what that would be like. But I’ll tell you this, because I can’t seem not to right now: I’ve lost the chance at a child, the hope of a child, and the language of that grief seemed to me to share at least enough of the same roots as the language of the grief in this film that it was completely and painfully decipherable.
It’s not the same, obviously, and I don’t mean to suggest that it is, either. After all, Didier and Elise meet their baby girl, they watch her grow, they come to know her, they fall desperately in love with her face, her smiles, her laughs, her tears, her curiosity, her lust for living. And then she is taken from them, slowly and with no small amount of suffering. It is a terrible thing. It is, in fact, the most terrible of all things. It compares to nothing. It’s the kind of grief that swallows a person whole and never spits them back out, not all the way. In this film, you watch Didier and Elise be swallowed up just like that, right there on the screen, every tiny, terrible gulp.
At the risk of exposing way too much about the bedrock of my heart, though — or worse, making this beautiful film and all its tragedies all about me (yuck) — I will tell you this: there is a baby that haunts my dreams. She never existed, not once, not for a single moment. Yet, she is as mine as anything ever has been. In those dreams, she is as real as you are. As real as I am. She has my eyes. She has his hair. She visits me all the time. And when I wake, she is gone. Every time, she is gone. And so, while it’s not the same — not even a little bit — it is still, in all the ways relevant to this, the same enough to matter.
This is oversharing, which I try not to do here, because who cares, really? What you want to know is whether or not this is a good movie. So I’ll tell you: yes, this is a good movie. In fact, this is a beautiful movie; it is a beautifully written, beautifully wrought film that will throw your heart into a well and leave you stand standing there craning your ears for hours, listening for the splash that never comes. This is the kind of movie you put on and never fully take back off. It is that rich a thing. That good, that hard, that everything and more.
Beyond that, and as a bonus to all you bluegrass fans out there (or those of you who never knew bluegrass before but are about to), the soundtrack is as much a work of pure, perfect craft as the film itself. At one point in the movie, Didier tells Elise the story of the origins of bluegrass — how it was started by immigrants from all over the world who were living in this great melting pot of cultures in the Appalachians, coming together with each of their own traditional instruments to make a new sound. More so than any other music, bluegrass is the sound of the acceptance of “other,” the sound of cooperation, dizzy experimentation, pure love of tone. It’s a combination so artful it practically hangs on the walls. Even if you decide not to watch the film, you should definitely give the record a listen, because every single minute is a total masterpiece of rhythm, resonance, and racket.
I don’t really have the words to express how highly I recommend this incredible film. I recommend it very, very highly. The problem is, asking you to watch it — if you have any heart at all — is like asking you to take a kebab skewer and shove it into your eye. I can’t help but think, however, that movie capable of hitting a human being this hard is the rarest gift of all. It’s what movies are supposed to do — they are supposed to generate that same rhythm and resonance in our own lives, right there as we watch them. A film that actually succeeds at doing that is a rare gift, and it’s the kind of experience you’ll never forget. In my private life, I am fairly rigorously loathe to feel things. I don’t like it. Not one bit. But when I’m forced to do it, as I obviously was by this film, the reward sometimes more than makes up for the journey.
In that regard, I don’t know what to tell you, really, other than this: The Broken Circle Breakdown grabbed me by the ankles and flung me heart-first into a wall. And I’ll never be able to thank it enough.
Do with that what you will.
[Rent on Amazon (free with Prime) | Netflix it]
Genre: Drama, Foreign
Cast: Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse, Geert Van Rampelberg, Nils De Caster,Robbie Cleiren