Friday afternoon, school’s out and I make the most of it by treating myself to a trip to the cinema on my own. I really love keeping my brain in movie-mode for a short (or even a long) while after it’s all over. I can do this if I don’t have to talk with anyone about what I’ve just watched. Maybe that’s my way of bidding farewell to the characters I’ve spent the last two hours with and who I got unexpectedly close to. That was definitely the case after watching Flemish director Felix van Grœningen’s new film, The Broken Circle Breakdown (watch the full trailer in English here.) In 2009, lavish praise was heaped on the director by the critics in Cannes for his last film, The Misfortunates ('Merditude des choses').
What would you do?
Elise (Veerle Baetens) has a tattoo shop in Gand.Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) plays banjo in a bluegrass band. He’s a big fan of America and if it weren’t for Belgium’s typically grey skies you’d almost think you were right in the middle of rural Alabama. Their lives are full of happiness – parties with friends playing music and singing around a fire, harmony with nature. And then along comes their little daughter Maybelle. Although they don’t intend to have her, she is the icing on the cake. But that was before they knew that she would become ill. It turns their lives upside down and changes how they looked at the world. How can a committed atheist like Didier tell his daughter as she is crying over a dead bird that it is all over for the little creature? It is flitting around the sky one moment, and then... How will he be able to cope with his pain and sadness? How can Elise, a non-practising catholic, turn for comfort to her faith with a husband nearby who despises religion? The film raises many questions but doesn’t offer stock answers or make any value judgements.
It’s left to the audience to find our own answers and to try and work out what we would do if we found ourselves in a situation like that. If you leave the cinema feeling the film is sad and deeply moving, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have just spent two hours in tears. Far from it! The director brilliantly walks us through the protagonists’ current lives (which they cope with as well as they can) and their lives before. He does this so effectively that for every hard knock they receive something happens to make them happy, an anecdote that makes you smile and soothes you, before you square up to what comes next. Country music permeates everything. Intense tunes form the musical backdrop to the story which mirrors the joy of playing music and being together, which are so central to the actual lives of the characters. This gives them the courage to carry on. The main actors demonstrate their acting prowess by playing their characters so brilliantly in all their sensitivities and contradictions.
There are some similarities between the 2011 Belgian film Declaration of War ('La Guerre est déclarée'), about a couple dealing with their sick child, and The Broken Circle Breakdown. Both screenplays take their inspiration from the co-authors’ or directors’ personal drama. Actor Johann Heldenbergh initially wrote the role of Didier for the stage before turning to play it himself on the big screen. French actors Valérie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm of Declaration of War meanwhile play themselves. If you’re looking for a good reason for finding out what Belgian cinema is like, you need look no further. And if you’re already hooked you will definitely fall for van Grœningen’s fourth feature length film. Apart from re-establishing his talent, this film reaffirms the genius of Belgian cinema in all its modesty.