Movie review: Joy and woe set to bluegrass in ‘Breakdown’

LOS ANGELES TIMESMarch 7, 2014 

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Tattoos. Beards. Bluegrass. What’s not to like?

  • THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN •• 1/2•

    Rated: Not rated, for mature audiences. Starring: Johan Heldenbergh, Veerle Baetens . Director: Felix van Groeningen. Running time: 112 minutes. Theater: Flicks. In Flemish with English subtitles; songs in English.

Bluegrass music and films in the Flemish language are not usually thought of in the same breath, but “The Broken Circle Breakdown” is determined to marry them. The result, not surprisingly, is somewhat mixed.

Belgium’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar, “Breakdown” gets the music right and has the benefit of strong acting, but its unapologetically melodramatic plot has a tendency to throw everything at you but the kitchen sink.

Bluegrass, as its fans know, has adherents all over the world — Japan is an especially active area — and it is always engaging to hear nonnative speakers of English nail the requisite country twang without skipping a beat.

More than that, the sound and its close cousin, country music, are certainly familiar with extreme situations: Legendary performers the Louvin Brothers didn’t call one of their most popular albums “Tragic Songs of Life” for nothing.

And there are moments in “Broken Circle Breakdown” — the title references the Carter Family’s “May the Circle Be Unbroken” — when the songs and the tragedy make strong music together.

The film’s stars, Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens, do their own playing and singing, and hearing their tight group tear into songs that include standards such as “Rueben’s Train” and “Wayfaring Stranger” and Townes Van Zandt’s heartbreaking “If I Needed You” — with occasional detours to tunes such as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” — is always a pleasure. (Bjon Eriksson is responsible for the fine score.)

Heldenbergh (who wrote the original stage production that “Broken Circle” is based on) and Baetens are equally strong as actors and have visible chemistry together in this story of more than half a dozen years in a strongly emotional relationship.

Less successful, however, is the story told by the film’s script, co-written by Carl Joos and director Felix Van Groeningen, and the very particular way Van Groeningen has chosen to relate its events.

Rather than tell its story chronologically, in reverse chronology or via a flashback from the present to the past, “Broken Circle” goes back and forth between then and now, between the couple’s happy past and their bleak present.

While this sounds intriguing in theory, in practice it dilutes whatever pleasure we can get from the couple’s happy days and makes the bad times seem like they never even have a chance to go away.

Heldenbergh plays Didier, the banjo player in a bluegrass group who has a chance meeting with Elise (Baetens), the owner of a tattoo parlor who does not shrink from having samples of her work placed strategically on her body.

The two fall for each other fast; in the blink of an eye, Elise has gone from someone who never heard of father of bluegrass Bill Monroe (Didier’s candidate for greatest musician ever) to getting that twang down perfectly and becoming a key vocalist in Didier’s band.

But before it shows us these cheerful beginning moments, “Broken Circle Breakdown” reveals Didier and Elise as a married couple having to cope with the fact that Maybelle, their 6-year-old daughter (named after Johnny Cash’s mother-in-law, Maybelle Carter, and nicely played by young Nell Cattrysse), is battling a particularly virulent cancer.

So back and forth we go from Didier and Elise in their early days to the unremitting horrors of Maybelle’s treatments and the body blows that situation inflicts on their relationship.

Sometimes shameless, sometimes effective, it all might remind you of a country song, but it’s hard to say which one.

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