Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Broken Circle Breakdown

Belgium  Netherlands  (111 mi)  2012) ‘Scope  d:  Felix Van Groeningen          Official Site

If I needed you would you come to me,
Would you come to me, and ease my pain?
If you needed me
I would come to you
I'd swim the seas for to ease your pain

In the night forlorn the morning's born
And the morning shines with the lights of love
You will miss sunrise if you close your eyes
That would break my heart in two

The lady's with me now since I showed her how
To lay her lily hand in mine
Loop and Lil agree she's a sight to see
And a treasure for the poor to find

—“If I Needed You,” written by Townes van Zandt, 1972, seen in a live performance in 1975, Townes Van Zandt - If I Needed You - YouTube

One of the more affecting films about grief, breaking it down into tiny fragments, where the film plays out like a memory play, as images sporadically hit the screen in what seems like no particular order at times, where the timeline is fractured, but events are recalled with significant impact.  Seen just a day or so after the death of legendary American folk singer Pete Seeger, this integration of music and message seems particular well integrated, where performance scenes of bluegrass music pop up throughout the film, where like a Greek chorus they mirror the emotional truth of the surrounding events.  While the Coen Brothers O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) may have been a manic romp through the American South during the Great Depression, where the movie was responsible for a bluegrass revival in America, this European film takes its cue from the highly successful musical format of blending bluegrass performance footage into the storyline.  In fact, this film draws upon a series of films, in particular John Carney’s ONCE (2006), where the music becomes the heart and soul of a budding romance that develops onscreen, beautifully expressing the fluctuating moods of the characters.  But it also follows familiar patterns set by various films like the grief stricken parents in RABBIT HOLE (2010), or the public marriage challenges facing Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash when performing onstage in WALK THE LINE (2005), and even the nightmarish descent into a kind of Hellish mindset of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000).  It’s interesting that the Coen brothers set a production standard of meticulous perfection when it comes to lip-synching, including their current film Inside Llewyn Davis (2012), but this is one of the noticeable deficiencies of this film, a minor blip in a film that otherwise has excellent production values. 

Based upon the play The Broken Circle Breakdown Featuring The Cover-Ups Of Alabama, written and initially performed by the two leads, Johan Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels, NL Trailer The Broken Circle Breakdown featuring the Cover-ups of Alabama YouTube (3:36), where Heldenbergh reprises his role as Didier, a former punk rocker who falls in love with bluegrass country music, while Veerle Baetens replaces Dobbels as Elise, his blond, heavily tattooed love interest.  With much of the film told out of time, and in flashbacks, the basic boy meets girl scenario goes through various progressions, where from the outset, after a rousing rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to start the film, where banjo playing Didier is indistinguishable from any of the other heavily bearded men in the group, one of whom is the straggling looking Jan Bijvoet from Borgman (2013), but then we see him as part of a couple caring for their 6-year old daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) at the hospital with chemotherapy before flashing back to the surging love of how they originally meet and get married.   Didier lives alone in a trailer on a farmhouse outside Ghent, balancing his time between heading a bluegrass band and fixing up the farm, which goes into overdrive when he meets Elise.  Didier loves not only bluegrass, but America, considered a “country of dreamers,” where Elise appropriately enough surprises him with a red, white, and blue American decorated bikini, where their love scenes are erotically charged, but their music is equally enthralling, as Elise joins the band and sings lead, THE BOY WHO WOULDN'T HOE CORN - The Broken Circle | 2013 Official [HD] YouTube (2:33).  But this budding love, culminating in a marriage ceremony performed by a horrible Elvis impersonator, is doused with the tragic realization that their young daughter has leukemia, and while the prospects initially look encouraging, she doesn’t respond well to any of the treatment, where the emotions range from the jubilantly hopeful “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” where the band amusingly greets her back home after her first round of chemotherapy, to an utterly sorrowful and haunting rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger” Veerle Baetens in The Broken Circle Breakdown YouTube (2:43), where nothing can be more heartbreaking than to sit helplessly and watch your child die. 

Certainly one of the strengths of the film is the aching authenticity between the two lovers, who are obviously smitten with one another, where there’s not an ounce of artifice between them, but they are also irreparably damaged by such an impactful loss, where they literally can’t find the words to fill the vacuous hole in their lives, so they begin blaming themselves and each other, fumbling to make some sense out of the situation, unable to fathom who they are anymore and unable to regain their emotional trust.  Continuing to tell the story in a nonlinear fashion, where wide gaps are missing, but later on the missing pieces are filled in, as the ebb and flow of the storyline is perhaps best expressed by the musical interludes that provide key emotional truths.  No musical number is more emotionally charged than a beautiful duet onstage between Didier and Elise singing If I Needed You - Johan Heldenbergh & Veerle Baetens - The ...  YouTube (3:22), the point where everything shifts in their relationship as the two lovers are moving apart, where Didier is desperately reaching out but Elise is uncomfortably retreating, an awkward moment where the overriding grief and pain is transparent, yet it’s probably the most telling moment in the film.  With his world torn apart, Didier has one of those embarrassing Ronee Blakley moments from Robert Altman’s NASHVILLE (1975), where he has a meltdown onstage, erupting in a belligerent rant that is sure to have drawn boos, but here the audience remains politely hushed and allows the performer to hang himself onstage.  It’s an off-putting moment, as this man who has drawn sympathy throughout has suddenly gone over the edge, taking a headlong plunge into hysteria.  It’s an interesting choice, as Didier, for all practical purposes, is the emotional anchor of the film, while Elise commands the screen much like Nicole Kidman in RABBIT HOLE, where she is allowed to drift off into the mystical realms for comfort, and the audience continually sympathizes with her distraught anguish and despair.  There’s nothing sugar coated or sentimentalized here, but there are moments that feel all too calculated, nonetheless, these two leads display an infectious chemistry, becoming overly familiarized, where the skewed editing technique actually elevates the emotional drama, providing that needed transcendence by the end.      

Felix Van Groeningen, film director: Didier and Elise play in a bluegrass band and that is no accident.  Bluegrass is integrated in a variety of ways into the story and forms the intrinsic link between all the main issues that appear in the film.

We have tried to let the songs find their spot in the scenario in a more organised manner and by doing so, give them the greatest possible dramatic impact.  Sometime a song is purely narrative and helps to tell the story... In other places, we select a given song because it underpins the emotions.

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