Blending cliché-prone genres — disease-of-the-week tearjerker, marital melodrama, musical — into an unwieldy but distinctive hybrid, Belgian director Felix van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown holds you even as it flies off the tracks.
The Flemish-language film revolves around banjo player Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens), who fall in love, make music together (the actors do their own singing, delivering soulful performances of bluegrass classics and original compositions), and lead a happy life with their daughter — until tragedy strikes.
As in his previous feature, The Misfortunates, the story darts around in time, and the jumbled chronology works; the contrast between the couple’s initial exuberance and the sorrow that follows is devastating, while the leads convey careening emotions with rawness and nuance.
The director pulls you in close to the physical and psychological spaces these people inhabit — sometimes too close. In one sequence, as a character drifts in and out of consciousness, we get a breakneck montage of flashbacks shot through colored filters, leading me to wonder if Danny Boyle had momentarily grabbed the camera. Van Groeningen has not yet mastered the adage of less is more.
That’s especially evident in the film’s second half, when tasteless narrative motifs involving George W. Bush, stem-cell research, and a symbolic bird make repeat appearances, and a stirring concert scene is punctuated by a tirade so unnecessary I literally smacked my forehead. Still, buried beneath the movie’s excesses is a deeply lived-in portrait of passion (artistic, romantic, parental) and grief.
The Broken Circle Breakdown crashes as frequently as it soars, but the ache at its center feels real.