The Broken Circle Breakdown, the Belgian film directed and co-written by Felix Van Groeningen, is the story of Elise (Veerle Baetens), a rockabilly tattoo artist, and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), a bluegrass musician and America enthusiast. After meeting in Elise’s tattoo parlor, the couple quickly connects, becoming lovers, spouses, and unexpectedly, parents. When their daughter Maybelle is diagnosed with cancer, the illness and the subsequent personal consequences of this challenge reverberate throughout their lives.
Didier’s enthusiasm for American music and culture is one of the focal points of the film. However, this passion begins to collapse when political complications tarnish the ideological vision of individualism, freedom, and reinvention he admired. Initially, he professes his love for the Appalachian ethic and people who pioneered a new way of life on the mountainous frontier. His craggy cowboy persona and scruffy looks ruggedly convey a kind of oversimplified understanding of American iconography. Superficial accessories — his pickup truck, his cowboy hat, his horses — all belie a naïve world view that’s eventually challenged when, according to Didier, shallow and unfounded religious tenets affect scientific progress.
This new American perspective is relayed primarily through the television, sometimes located passively in the background and other times squarely in focus. When news footage from September 11th is first broadcast in the film’s background, it is used more to mark time and motivate the chronology the film. But this newsreel may also point to the symptoms of the dangerous religious extremism Didier reviles. Later in the film, Didier and Elise watch the televised speeches from the George W. Bush administration that announce new legislation limiting stem cell research. Didier looses it and yells aggressively at the TV. This reaction indicates not only how powerful, but also how influential, television can be for audiences.
While Didier is reacting more to the implications of the legislative choices, TV in the film also provides Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) with her own kind of motivation. The children’s program Mega Mindy plays in her hospital room and, as we later learn, figures prominently in one of her earlier birthday parties. Maybelle clearly identifies with and aspires to be like Mega Mindy, a female action hero with superhuman powers. This kind of fighting, take charge rhetoric is also used when explaining her cancer treatments. Chemotherapy is referred to as “Captain Chemo” and the new bone marrow transplants and blood cells are described as soldiers moving through her body. Though these metaphors are helpful for Maybelle, they also seem markedly similar to the way Didier initially understands America: as one ideologically pure, rebellious country, full of possibility, promise, and fight, personified by cowboys, captains, fighters, and ruffians. Still, ultimately for Didier, this is a mythology that he will no longer find tenable.
Didier also finds problematic is religion. While he is a vocal atheist, Elise is Catholic. Though Elise does not broadcast her beliefs, her faith is expressed through subtle gestures, such as holding or wearing her family’s heirloom cross. This item has been passed down through generations of women and is eventually given to Maybelle. Elise also references the possibility of an afterlife and looks on in annoyance when Didier clumsily explains to their daughter what happens to birds when they die. Though initially these conflicts are more cordial differences of opinion, the disagreements eventually become more caustic and volatile.
The structure of The Broken Circle Breakdown is itself a little fragmented. However, this asynchronous storytelling technique is not disorienting. Instead it allows the audience to understand the couple and their relationship comprehensively, rather than identify with their bond through one swath of happiness or one pointed moment of pain. Letting the film move and breath this way not only provides an apt conceit for the title and the themes addressed throughout the movie, but also makes this very difficult film watchable. This is a happy movie and a sad movie, and in total it is very complete. Though there are times when one may anticipate the film becoming overwrought, preachy, and sentimental, it quickly reverses back to solid and grounded realism. This keen awareness and balance is important for a film with so many issues to unpack. Though it does not provide many concrete answers or much solace, The Broken Circle Breakdown does give a critical and nuanced treatment of a very complicated relationship bound up by grief, society, music, and family.