News Column

'Broken Circle Breakdown' review: It loses its way

November 22, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 22--Drama. Directed by Felix van Groeningen. With Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse. In Flemish with English subtitles. (Not rated, 111 minutes.)

There's half a good movie in Belgium's "The Broken Circle Breakdown," a melodrama unexpectedly set among Belgian bluegrass musicians. It's the story of a young married couple undone by a family tragedy, but the film loses its way, at one point turning into a political harangue.

Lanky, bearded Didier (Johan Heldenbergh, who also co-wrote the play on which the story is based) is a fan of America ("a country of dreamers"), and especially bluegrass music, which he performs with a popular band. He lives in a trailer next to an old country house he's repairing.

The music is a key story element, and we see the band performing many snippets (in the original English) of bluegrass and country tunes that reflect on the film's actions and themes.

Didier falls for Elise (Veerle Baetens), a spirited and very appealing tattoo artist who, remarkably, has a fine singing voice and becomes the vocalist in his group. They have a daughter (Nell Cattrysse), whom they name Maybelle, after the famed member of the Carter Family.

At age 6, Maybelle is diagnosed with cancer, which we learn in the opening scene (the film has a fractured time scheme). As it follows her treatment, the film jumps back and forth between scenes of the couple's earlier days, blissful (there's a fair amount of sex) and otherwise, and their attempts to deal with the emotional fallout of the girl's illness. The unbearable stress extracts a heavy toll.

But director Felix van Groeningen ("The Misfortunates") hasn't come up with a coherent payoff. The opening half is conveyed with some finesse, but the film becomes increasingly heavy-handed and tin-eared. The most glaring example is a concert scene in which Didier interrupts the performance to deliver a long-winded, high-volume rant against American stem cell research policies. He also shouts at a televised speech by George W. Bush. In addition, we see footage of the World Trade Center attacks.

Where did all this come from? There seems little point except to ratchet up the emotional heat.

That's sad, because Heldenbergh and especially Baetens are impressive. Their characters, at least for a while, are full of life and feeling, and you can sense what the filmmakers were shooting for -- the heartbreaking contrast between the couple's loving past and their excruciating present. Too bad the movie's second half feels forced and untrue.

Walter Addiego is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: waddiego@sfchronicle.com

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(c)2013 the San Francisco Chronicle

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