Not long into “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” we’re treated to one of the single most patriotic shots of the year: the sight of a tattooed woman in an American flag bikini slinking across the hood of a fiery red pick-up truck, prepared to plant a kiss on the lips of her stunned lover. Then, they resume speaking sweet nothings to one another… in Flemish. Belgium’s submission for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, “The Broken Circle Breakdown” happens to be a canny encapsulation of all-American values and post-9/11 disillusionment as seen through a foreign prism. More importantly, it’s a superb tearjerker, juxtaposing the inherent passion and sorrow of romance to masterful effect in between beautiful bluegrass ballads.
When Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) meet, they seem an unlikely pair. A fan and performer of American country music, Didier has no interest in getting any tattoos; Elise is littered with them, one for each of her former flames. She comes around on the music, though, joining Didier on stage and at home, where they soon find themselves faced with an unplanned pregnancy. A few years later, they’re faced with the burden of terminal illness, and from there, director Felix Van Groeningen scrambles the narrative between highs and lows in Elise and Didier’s relationship, inviting us to wonder if their initial love would be worth the eventual loss, as if our answer might somehow alleviate their unavoidable pain.
Based on a play originally written by Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels, the story’s structure and solemn subject matter invites easy comparison to 2010’s “Blue Valentine,” and “Breakdown” is similarly heartbreaking early and often. Fortunately, the two leads here can hold their own against the likes of Gosling and Williams, and what’s more, their musical performances are equally impressive, infusing the potentially punishing proceedings with a fitting grandeur. Didier enthuses about the blues underpinnings of country music early on in their relationship, and the hardships and melancholy that follow feel like a cautionary tale worthy of being a classic tune all its own.
When the lovers’ split views on faith and science enter the picture, they hardly do so subtly, with Didier openly railing against an American president’s resistance to potentially vital stem cell research, but it’s a feasible fracture only gradually brought forth from events in their lives and an additional axis by which his and her relationship can be considered. Their Bohemian lifestyle, complete with a farm to call home, can only keep real-world responsibility at bay for so long, and along the way, they each find solace and release in their respective art -- music, ink, not to mention the folksy promise of Americana in general -- and in one another until neither can suffice. Van Groeningen intuitively examines the ways in which a relationship can strengthen and erode throughout the years, all set to a tremendous soundtrack. In doing so, “The Broken Circle Breakdown” restores unto melodrama its good name.
SCORE: 8.9 / 10
"The Broken Circle Breakdown" opens in NYC on November 1st, and will roll out across the country in the coming months. Visit the film's official website for more information.