The trailer for The Broken Circle Breakdown, a Belgian musical drama nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film, neatly suggests the depths of passion, love and anger the film explores. But only suggests: This is a powerful, emotionally wrenching look at the courtship, marriage and breakup of an America- and American music-obsessed singing cowboy named Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and a free-spirited tattoo artist and singer named Elise (Veerle Baetens). It takes you to heaven, hell and back with an unassuming directness you only find today in the corners of American indie cinema. If Broken Circle reminds me of anything, though, it’s the classic George Stevens melodrama Penny Serenade. Like that three-hankie weepie from the 1940s, Felix van Groeningen’s drama isn’t afraid to “go there.” There is drunken violence, a child sick with leukemia, public declarations of love, a suicide attempt, hopeful spirituality and raging anger against God.
The film is not told in chronological order; given the impatience of most contemporary moviegoers, this is a brave choice. It also proves worthwhile dramatically: The audience can see the shape of the joys and miseries visited upon Elise and Didier, so we’re plunged into each emotional moment without wondering (too much) about what happens next.
And there’s the music: When it comes to bluegrass, these Belgian hillbillies can play. (They also sing in unaccented English that’s so good that this may help the film’s soundtrack album become a cult hit.) This music is deeply spiritual, which is an attraction for Elise. For Didier, however, it becomes a greater and greater problem as tragedy brings him face to face with his own atheism.
Will the circle be unbroken? Almost certainly. Failure and loss are the way of all things. But it’s nice to think it might endure, somehow. And The Broken Circle Breakdown leaves the audience with a little bit of hope.