Felix van Groeningen’s deeply sad but realistic indictment of love, The Broken Circle Breakdown, is the beautifully painful journey of one family’s experience of tragedy and how they try to live with each other after losing everything.
Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh deliver astounding performances as Elise and Didier, the two lovers drawn together in the midst of this passionate whirlwind, as they unexpectedly welcome a new arrival to complete the perfect circle of their family. This circle is tragically broken and the breakdown that ensues is not only of their marriage but also of their respective lives.
Like Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (2010), this film shows not only the electric excitement and sexual passion that forms the embryonic stage of a love story but stays with it, continuing the journey, beyond the ‘honeymoon’ period and into the realities of two people sharing their lives and the inevitable hardships that they’ll face. And they don’t come much harder than this. As in Blue Valentine, the two leads here produce deeply human powerhouse performances ripping to the very core of what it is to be in love. And it’s love that is the centre of The Broken Circle Breakdown. Not glamourised Hollywood happy-ending love but real-life real love, the kind that can tear you apart. And that’s exactly what this film does.
The story opens with the revelation that will ultimately destroy this family but it’s this creative decision that gives the film its weight. Everything seen thereafter is tempered with the knowledge of impending trauma and tragedy, giving an authentic depth to the lives of these characters. The non-linear narrative (although not an original technique, it is expertly utilised here) isn’t the only convention of dramatic irony employed by van Groeningen. As the lives of Didier and Elise start to fall apart so the success of their bluegrass band, inversely, goes from strength to strength. It’s this absurd and cruel irony that makes their pain and loss, and indeed the film, even harder to bear. The musical performances of the band plays as the diegetic soundtrack to the film, a delightfully poignant touch, as the crisp and rasping bluegrass songs are performed by the cast members themselves.
Tattoos, in the film, serve as a wonderfully intelligent and unique metaphor for the transient nature of love. Elise is adorned with the names of former lovers (and now Didier’s too) tattooed all over her body but she covers over them with a new tattoo when that relationship ends. Something that you thought permanent turns out to be transitory. The point: as intense as a love can feel, it may be just one of several loves experienced over a lifetime.
Touching on themes far bigger than this one family’s suffering, but focusing the filmic microscope onto their lives, The Broken Circle Breakdown is a beautiful, challenging and completely heart-breaking piece of cinema. To say it’s moving doesn’t do it justice. And if you’re not moved, then consider yourself unmovable.