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New Release Review - The Broken Circle Breakdown

A couple fall out over how to deal with their daughter's cancer.

Directed by: Felix Van Groeningen
Starring: Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse




Elise (Baetens) and Didier (Heldenbergh) are the parents of a six year old girl undergoing chemo therapy. Through flashbacks, we see the early days of the couple's relationship, when the pair spend half their time love-making and the other half obsessing over bluegrass music, Elise becoming the lead singer in Didier's band. Through flashforwards, however, we see the disintegration of their relationship as they disagree about how to deal with the cards life has cruelly dealt the couple.
There's an old phrase, "The devil has all the best tunes". Anyone who is a fan of music knows this is far from the truth. Until relatively recently, religion and music have gone hand in hand; it could be argued neither could have developed without the other. Would congregations be so willing to attend ceremonies without the euphoric release of a good singalong? Would the great composers of Europe have gotten to practice their craft without the backing of the church?
The title of 'The Broken Circle Breakdown' is a reference to 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken?', a popular Protestant hymn that went on to become a standard of the bluegrass genre of music. There's a reason why music has long been associated with religion and it's nothing to do with musicians somehow feeling closer to God than the rest of us. The simple fact is that for a long time the only way to get your music heard was to pander to the church. Most of the great classical art of Europe is religious in tone; that's simply because the Catholic church were footing the bills. Likewise the Appalachian mountains, where bluegrass sprang from; if you wanted to play to a large audience you had to play in a church. It's knowing this that allows atheists like me to enjoy music whose lyrics I thoroughly disagree with. Besides, I've always believed in separating the artist from the art.
Didier, however, ultimately struggles with this compromise. We see him originally declare his love of America, in his mind a romanticized land where "everyone gets to start over". He embraces his idea of Americana, dressing like a cowboy and fronting his bluegrass band. Upon discovering that America's religious right are the reason that science can't progress to a stage where it can save his daughter, he grows to despise the land he once viewed through rose tinted glasses. The lyrics of his beloved bluegrass songs, which he had likely never thought too much about previously, begin to haunt him, a reminder of how the fate of his daughter is doomed by the faith of others. Like Malcolm McDowell's protagonist of 'A Clockwork Orange', who has his beloved Beethoven used as a weapon against him, Didier loses the one thing that always brought light into his world. On the other hand, Elise, unfamiliar with bluegrass before meeting Didier, begins to embrace the spiritual themes of the music as a way of finding comfort.
The two clash over a question of evolution involving a dead crow. Early in the relationship, Elsie asks Didier to erect a veranda to keep the rain off them while they sit on their porch. Didier originally refuses, as he wants to gaze at the stars. A compromise is reached and a glass veranda is built. When a crow is mortally wounded by flying into the glass, Didier refuses to lie to his daughter about what happens to a creature after its death. Elise resents him for upsetting the child. As so often happens with compromise, both parties end up feeling cheated.
The structure is similar to Lars Von Trier's 'Dancer in the Dark'. For every scene of abject misery (and there are plenty) we get a moment of relief through musical scenes that will have you tapping your feet in your seat. Ultimately though, it's a hard watch, not one you'll be in a rush to revisit.
Immediately following my screening, I felt somewhat ambivalent to the film but after a day of reflection I was declaring it a masterpiece, ready to award it a perfect score. After a couple more days to chew it over, however, I'm finally too troubled by the "misery porn" element to hail it as any kind of masterpiece. Over the years I've grown to appreciate laughter over lectures and the tone of this film is too unrelentingly dark for me at this point in my life. (As a younger, more cynical man I likely would have shouted about this from the rooftops.) 
It's not the best film of the year, nor is it my personal favorite, but in tackling the thorny issues of compromise and our secular relationship with the leftover tropes of religion in a manner I haven't seen before, it's certainly one of the must-see (once) movies of 2013.
9/10


Eric Hillis

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