Director's Cut: Felix Van Groeningen ('The Broken Circle Breakdown')


Real talk: "The Broken Circle Breakdown" is going to destroy you. Belgium's official submission for next year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Felix Van Groeningen's sweet, sexy and unapologetically devastating drama is coming to harvest your tears with extreme prejudice, but – to paraphrase the immortal words of John Cougar Mellencamp – it's hard to remember the last time a movie hurt so good. Based on a stage production by Johan Heldenbergh and starring the playwright himself in the lead role, "The Broken Circle Breakdown" is most reductively described as "Walk the Line" meets "Blue Valentine", but often feels more powerful than either of those films by virtue of its unerring sincerity and Groeningen's elegant balance of sentiment and schematics.

Didier (Heldenbergh) is obsessed with America. A lanky bluegrass musician with a beard that would seem feral if not for the kind smile that pokes out from the thistles, Didier doesn't let the fact that he lives in Belgium distract from or diminish his love for The Land of Opportunity. Our first impression of Didier, however, is of a concerned father in crisis, as we meet him and his heavily tattooed wife Elise (the incredible Veerle Baetens) as they spend yet another dreadful day in the hospital with their cancer-stricken daughter, Maybelle. What sounds like the premise for another bland pean to the enduring power of hope is soon revealed to be something far more sincere and singable, as Groeningen's film fluidly bounces around in time, inviting us to have a much more comprehensive understanding of what's at stake as we watch Didier and Elise's first date, listen to the irresistible music they make together, and process their conflicting philosophies about life and its ultimate value.

The rare tear-jerker that you'll be desperate to re-watch, "The Broken Circle Breakdown" is one of the year's most valuable surprises, and it's got a totally killer soundtrack, to boot. With the film set to begin its national rollout this weekend, I sat down with Felix Van Groeningen for an interview that quickly became more of a therapy session than anything else.

Read our rave review of the film here. And please be advised that this interview vaguely reveals significant plot points from the end of the movie.

FILM.COM: I loved this film, but it also really f**ked me up. So I apologize if the questions are of a heavier variety. 


Nothing too traumatic.

Sorry to put you through all that.

It was worth it!  And, as devastated as I was at the end, I was also really eager to re-watch the film. And not just because I tend to be a masochistic viewer.

That's great to hear.

So, my first question is one of those heavier ones.

Start off with the heavy ones.

In the film, Didier loses a number of things in his life, and his trajectory left me wondering if losing something is really the only way for someone to change? Is loss the greatest catalyst toward personal development?

Um... Yes. My second movie [2004's "Steve + Sky"] was about realizing that you're not invincible or immortal, which is something that usually you experience, well... I experienced when I was 23. My dad died and a friend who was very young died of cancer. So that's when you start to think about, "Okay, I have to move on in life, because it really can happen any day." So, yeah, those things have that effect on me.

In a way, the movie doesn't leave you with much to be hopeful for. I mean, there's no scene where it's like "Everything's going to be okay, life is rainbows!" But after all of the musical performances in the film, that last scene left me feeling like it... life... is more about the band than it is the song, ya know? Does that ring true for you?

Yes, it does. For me, how the ending works is that there's a question in this movie: how do you cope with life? And do we need religion or not? They're very opposite fields. For me, personally, I don't really need religion, and what is there is art, or movies, or stories, or music.

So you identify with Didier more than Elise?

Uhh, I'm more in between. But I like the idea in the ending - and that's what I do think is positive - there is still music and we'll still go on. That's the only thing you can do, and the only thing you will do. And that's, um, I don't know, it's like at some funerals, you get this strange energy of not feeling down but feeling up, actually, because you're together and you need to go on, and you will go on, and you remember beautiful tales about the person that's gone. But there's also that hole, of course.

The movie is refreshingly very honest in that sense. I never felt lied to for the sake of drama. Was that honesty really important to you from the beginning in maintaining this very frank idea of "This is what we have, this is what we lose, this is what it is"?

I would never come up with a story like that. It was because of the original show, what it did to me, that I said "Okay, let's try to make this into a movie." And that was, for the work process, the biggest inspiration was the original, and trying to make a cinematic experience of what I had lived through. Seeing it the first time. Um, and, yeah, doing it as honestly as possible. And, for that, sometimes I had to betray the original, as well. We have changed things, made it maybe a little more romantic here and there to level out the harder parts to cope with.

Was it strange to have the actual playwright as your star, or was he on set really just as the character?

Johan was there more as a character actor. Of course, in some scenes he could better explain what it was about. I mean, he's a talker, so he had sometimes better tools to explain to Veerle [Baetens] what a certain scene was about. So, we would ask him, "Why did you write this?" just to have him explain to her. But that was it. For the rest, he gave me all his confidence, or trust, and his positive vibes. Like, "Okay, Felix, do this. Oh, and actually maybe this is better than in the play. Why didn't I come up with this?"

So it was sort of like having a co-pilot?

It was amazing. I can't imagine how someone can do this without that.

And my understanding of the play is that it's very different, structurally. And this movie... if this story is told chronologically, it's a Lars Von Trier film, you know? It's someone, you know, losing everything, and being miserable, and it's pretty much "Breaking the Waves".


When you're putting this together, were there scenes you took out because they were too sad? I mean, how delicate is that balancing act?

Um, well, we edited for a really long time, and actually the first four months I worked with a different editor. I didn't work with the guy I'd been working with on my previous movies. He was going to do the movie, and then he chose to do another project. And it was delicate, because he's also a good friend, but I decided to work with someone else. And I got in a big crisis, after four months, like, "Mmm, this is not working."

What was the shape of the movie at that point?

We went back and forth in time, but it was close to the script. We just simplified it a little bit and, um, I guess we took out more of the edgy stuff, because I was scared of going too far. Then, I didn't feel we were making the right choices, and that the movie wasn't finished, so I called Nico [Leunen] again and he had finished with the other movie, so he came in and gave his thoughts on what the editing could be. And that's where he said, you know, "I would leave the idea of the script and do this, and this, and this." And I was like, "Okay. Alright. Let's do this. Are you free?"

Yeah, sometimes you're so stuck in your vision that all it takes is someone to come in fresh and say one word and suddenly you're completely unblocked.

Yeah, and I just trust this guy so much. We've been working together for three movies already, so we spent more than one year in a dark room together, talking about films. I mean, it's- when we're together, it's magic. So then, to answer your question, I think during shooting I'm not afraid to go as far as possible to make it work. Because I know in editing you can always get away with it. You don't like it, you throw it out. What's so wonderful about Nico is that the things that I would be scared to leave in that he's going to say, "You need that! You need to go further than that!" And that's where he's brilliant and really takes the best out of the material to make the final edit work. I think what he's good at is just taking away the explanation but leaving the emotion. And that's how you, um, put layers on top of one another and make a good film.

It definitely comes across. Early in the film, one of the most satisfying things is figuring out where you are in time based on how the characters are treating each other. So, you realize "Oh, this is the day they first met" instead of the film just telling you as much.

And a lot of the emotions, they overlap. And so, they will create the same confusions that the characters are living, and that's what really makes it so rich, I guess.

Watching the film, the obvious reference – "Walk the Line" – never really crossed my mind. And I was reading an interview where you said the Almodovar film "Talk to Her" was a big influence, and I'd love you to elaborate on how that came through.

I think because it's also so emotional, and the music helps there. But, it's not something that I re-watched or something to do with the writing. I mean, it was really the experience of the theater play that was the inspiration to create something original. And I've watched "Breaking the Waves", no... I mean "Dancer in the Dark", but I couldn't- I mean, that's what I didn't want to do. It didn't make sense to use the music in that way.

The reference that actually most jumped out at me wasn't a movie at all, it was the Milan Kundera novel "The Unbearable Lightness of Being".

I've only seen the movie.

The movie's okay, but the book is amazing. Anyway, the way you use music in the film is interesting, because it seems like they become very successful as musicians, but it's all in the background. I'm curious if you could talk a little bit about how that decision was made to exclusively foreground the human story.

It's something that occurred during the writing a little bit, but more during pre-production, actually, where I started choosing the venues where they'd play. And I said, "Okay, what if we make this bigger and bigger?" Because I wanted to make it believable that they were playing this music, but it's not really believable that you do it professionally. So, that's why they have their jobs next to the concerts that they're playing. And they needed to keep that, but then, you know, during pre-production people will go location scouting and I will print old pictures and lay them down on the floor, and I will add pictures of the characters and the way they dress, and that's how I make a collage on the floor of this movie. So that's just how it grew. It wasn't even an idea that was already there during writing, it was more during pre-production.

And, when I think of the concert scenes in the movie, I think of the one scene that I can't re-watch, which is the scene at the end where he gives his rant about America and whatnot, which I happen to agree with, more or less, what he's saying on a slightly calmer level.


But, the movie has a really interesting relationship with America. From their remarkably perfect American accents and how Elise is wearing her American flag bikini in the beginning. And I was struck by the global, intensely personal fallout of American decisions, even in places where we're not sending troops and whatnot. 

For me, the important thing about it is that it's Didier's dream that collapses. And it's a dream that is, in the first place, not very realistic, but he's living it because he wants to. He just only sees the good things about America and it's like he's almost living there. It's in Belgium, but he has this pick-up, and he rides a horse, and sits around an open fire with his friends and plays music, and talks about how people in America got together and started playing that music, and this multicultural dream. But it's not, I mean, in the basis, it might be a beautiful idea, but humanity, on every level, has broken that dream down already. So, it's more to create his vision of a utopia, which, for him, starts to break down when he loses his daughter and then he starts to see the other side. So, it's more like seeing only the good things, then only the bad things. Something more realistic, in a more realistic timeframe, with a guy like George Bush making dubious decisions for maybe the wrong reasons, but, on a personal level of somebody whose dream breaks apart.

The film so thoroughly understands the personal impact of the "American Dream" and the idea of starting over or reinventing yourself. Given Didier's practiced commitment to all things American, it's ironic how Elise is so effortlessly American because she's such a chameleon. The night after they have sex, she drives away, and she comes back and she's like, "Oh, I'm into bluegrass now and I have this bikini" and he's like, "Oh my god, this is amazing." 

But he sells it to her, too, and she's living it. And then later, you realize that she is doing this with these tattoos, too.

But the movie maybe argues that it's better not to try and start over, that it's futile. That it's better to accept the horrible things that happen to you. Not to color over them, but to draw around them.

I don't know. It's just what people do, I guess.

And her tattoos, on a practical level, how much of a pain of the ass was that, to put those on every day?

[Laughs] It was a pain in the ass, especially for Veerle because she had to be on set like two hours before everybody else. And for me, as director, I mean, it was fun because it was so beautiful and so sexy. But it, uh, [laughs], in between takes we sometimes had to wait, like, half an hour, because one of the tattoos went off, so they had to take it off - which is pretty painful, because it has to be rubbed off - and put it on again. So, it made me lose a lot of time, and I'm the director, I like to shoot. This movie, I had to wait a lot. But that's what happens when you shoot with a kid, or with tattoos, or with dogs.

And for her actual tattoos, were you involved with the actual design? What they were going to be, what they were going to express about her?

Yeah. We did everything together with the makeup artist, with Veerle, and the tattoo artist who designed them. So, I searched a lot of internets, and I have a lot of tattoo books. I just made a kind of, um, a booklet with all of the things that I liked. There are a lot of tattoos that I think are really horrible, and then I met this tattoo artist who really made beautiful tattoos, I thought. And then I said, "Okay, this girl, I think you should do everything." And then she read the script and she proposed a lot of tattoos. And then I realized, only then I realized, how important that tattoo is. That a tattoo is part of your life. It was already in the script that she had names, and those names were covered up, but then I understood more. It's really just chunks of time, or how you change as a person.

When I Googled her after the movie, I was shocked that the tattoos weren't real. They're that good. Back to her relationship with Didier, it was refreshing to see something so sex positive. Sort of like sex for them was a way to reconnect after something terrible happened, or just an expression of love. In American films, especially mainstream ones, sex always seems to come with a price. In this movie, they have a kid, I guess that's the biggest price there is, but it's still seen as positive. And their sex life continues.

Well, it's something very small out of the play that I found very beautiful. Didier talks about her and their having sex, and what he loves about her is that every time she comes she cries. And that's what happens to her. Just a little small sentence, and this makes you want to make it special, too, when you have directed. So, we put the crying in, of course. But then, on a sadder moment. All these things came about in the movie through working with the actors. Like, the shot where she's with her feet against the window of the car and the camera going up, we just- this is a collaboration with Veerle and having fun trying out these sex scenes in the car, and just looking "How can we do this? Okay, let's do this!" That's really how I like to make a film, to have all these people come together and knowing that you want to make this or this or get out something special in their relationship and then try to figure out a way to do it.

And there's such a great chemistry between them. But she wasn't in the show, right? It was another actress. Was it ever considered that the actress from the show would be in the film?

It was the initial idea, but, during writing I discovered that I had doubts, and it wasn't something that I knew when I decided to turn this play into a movie, but I really started doubting, and I started not to have a fantasy about the character. And, um, it was only when I met Veerle that Elise really became who she was in the movie now. So, I doubted, I said, "Okay, I want to open it up, I want to do auditions, I want to see different actresses." That was a very painful discussion, of course. And then I saw Veerle and I said, "Okay, this is it." She can really, you know, she's on the same level as Johan. A different scale, but the same level. She's the only woman - I did a lot of auditions, a lot of actresses next to Johan - who scared him, at some point. And I thought, "Okay, that's interesting" It wasn't in the play, but it was a fantasy I had for the movie, and I didn't really know how. Then I saw Veerle impersonating that, and that was it.

He seems like a tough guy to scare, too.

Yeah! To level it out and make a really special couple, that is what had to happen. And I only realized this when I saw it in front of my eyes.

I've been listening to the soundtrack a lot, and I was reading about how the band in the film became a band afterward, and I wonder if the same is going to be true of Veerle and Didier, if they're going to go perform the songs with the band.

They did! They went with the whole band.

Will they be coming to America?

The band won't be coming, but they'll be in LA for a moment, and they'll probably do a duet. But, yeah, they did a lot of concerts in Belgium. And they're doing another tour next spring.

Do you anticipate any sort of a different reaction - because the film was very successful in Belgium - from American audiences? In either a good or a bad way?

Well, the screenings that I've had so far were amazing, so, um, no. I've seen the film work all over the world, visiting festivals. The film really did great in France, too. There's a little - you see the tension - where what the movie talks about shifts a little, but the emotional impact works everywhere.

I think it could actually work even better, because we, as Americans, don't expect it to be a story about us, nationally. We might be more susceptible to its effects.

But like, it doesn't actually come up. People agree with the movie, more or less. Whereas in France, there's still some kind of anger about this guy. So more questions will be about "why is this aspect there?" or "what is the impact of that?" or "why did you choose that?" There's more to do about that aspect of the movie, whereas here, you feel that people just agree and there's just like, "What are we going to do about it? It's what happened."

“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.