Friday, January 24, 2014

Short Cut Movie Review: The Broken Circle Breakdown

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

The Belgian film The Broken Circle Breakdown is precisely the kind of film that foreign countries typically enter as their candidates for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. They’ve learned to play the game. If it takes on subject matter that tends to be appealing to Hollywood, then they get noticed. And sure enough, it was nominated last week for the Oscar. A marriage in crisis and a cancer-stricken child are the two major plot points and it doesn’t get much more emotionally heart-wrenching than that. And really I’m not saying it’s a bad movie, but I’ve come to anticipate that foreign films will me something new. When they mimic some of the worst aspects of studio filmmaking, I’m disappointed.

It follows about seven or eight years, the full duration of the relationship, in the lives of Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier. We know from the earliest scenes that their seven-year old daughter is very sick. Their relationship unfolds in flashback as we see how they met, got pregnant, became professional partners in musical performance, and then learned that their little girl was dying. Later it’s the age-old tale of two people handling unspeakable grief in drastically different ways.

Director Felix Van Groeningen wrote the screenplay with Carl Joos and Charlotte Vandermeersch, adapted from a play by Mieke Dobbels and Johan Heldenbergh. Heldenbergh also plays Didier on screen. His character is a massive lover of America and bluegrass music. He plays the banjo in a pure bluegrass band singing English language songs to audiences that seem oddly receptive to a musical style I have trouble imagining they connect with. Elise becomes a singer in the band with him.

This is truly one of the saddest movies I’ve seen. Not only do we have to watch a little girl die of cancer and a marriage fall apart, but Elise doesn’t have a very pleasant emotional state after the death of her child. The film seems to want to use the bluegrass music as a catalyst for elevating emotion (which, by the way, functionally works much better than your typical Hollywood musical score) and the promise of America and the new frontier as hope, but Didier is disillusioned when he learns that George W. Bush vetoed a bill to allow stem cell research – the very scientific study that could eventually help to save lives like his daughter’s.

It’s ultimately a strange political and religious argument the film makes in tis final half hour. Hints of Didier’s atheism are there throughout, but out of nowhere the film is suddenly and bizarrely anti-American in a way I never would have guessed given the way it started. It has some wonderful musical moments and I could have enjoyed a whole movie of nothing but bluegrass performances and rehearsal, but be advised this is a profoundly depressing tale with no real redemption for anyone even as Didier and his band use their music to say goodbye in a bittersweet musical exit.

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