“The Broken Circle Breakdown” is pure melodrama, a Belgian film about love, death and bluegrass music.
That’s right, bluegrass, and, to be more precise, old-time string band country. That’s the music played by the group that is led by banjo player Didier, who meets and falls for tattoo artist Elise, who soon reveals a Southern twang as she becomes the group’s singer.
That jump from not knowing Bill Monroe’s name to singing like Loretta Lynn in English is a little hard to believe. But it fits perfectly into emotionally intense style that director Felix Van Groeningen and his co-writer Carl Joos bring to the picture that is based on a play written by Johan Heldenbergh.
Heldenbergh stars in the film playing the charming, bearded Didier opposite Veerle Baetens, and both are superb. Impressively, they handle the playing and singing as well, and the group doing its thing on film is excellent. The music, however, isn’t all bluegrass and old. Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” turns up as does Lyle Lovett’s “Cowboy Man.”
Those songs are well selected and fit with the story, which gets much of its drama and emotion from the cancer that's stricken the couple’s little girl Maybelle, named after Mother Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family. The first family of country music did “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the root of the film’s title that suggests the circle will indeed break.
Disclosing little Maybelle’s illness and the title’s root and meaning is giving nothing away. The film is oddly structured, opening with the girl in a hospital, then flashing around in time. Even the flashbacks are out of chronological order. So, for example, we don’t see Didier and Elise’s meeting in her tattoo shop until well into film, by which time it’s kind of a waste.
It’s easy enough to follow the story as it moves across about a half-dozen years. But the constant flashbacks serve more to diminish the melodrama than enhance it. It does, however, eliminate any sense of staginess, the common malady of films adapted from plays.
That said, there are some powerful moments scattered throughout the picture, like the falling in love and the fighting over who is responsible for the little girl’s disease. Not so effective is Didier’s rant against George W. Bush’s decision to limit stem cell research -- an odd bit of trans-Atlantic politics that doesn’t fit all that well with the rest of the picture.
The structure and incongruous elements make “The Broken Circle Breakdown” an uneven film. But the strong performances by Heldenbergh and Baetens keep it watchable, and the transported Americana music really works.