Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Broken Circle Breakdown

If Lone Survivor had me in tears from the get-go, The Broken Circle Breakdown wasn't far off, though for entirely different reasons. This is a remarkable—dare I say unique?—film just on the surface characteristics.

First of all, it's Flemish. So, it's Belgian, but not French Belgian. I've seen about two other Flemish movies in the past ten years, the one leaping to mind being the effective thriller Memory of a Killer. Flemish is a lot like English. Every now and again, the actors would speak whole sentences that were perfectly understandable English. (Kind of like Dutch, but more so, to my ear.)

Second of all, the Flems (heh) involved are bluegrass musicians. They do American bluegrass/folk/country with perfect Southern accents. I'm not talking Southern Belgium, either.

Seriously, how many Flemish bluegrass movies are there? Did that ever even occur to you? What's wrong with you? Have you no imagination?

Third, the music is really good. Besides sounding authentic, it's just really, really good. Standards, of course, but performed with complete sincerity and not inconsiderable skill. Like, the people involved really loved the music they were making. (Contrast with Inside Llewyn Davis' "I don't even like folk music."

Fourth, the music is absolutely central to the story. Both the individual songs and the fact that it's bluegrass is critical to both the details of the plot and the major themes.

Fifth, there is an amazing paean to America at one point, and later on an amazing anti-W rant. (More on this in a moment.)

The story, told in broken time (a la 500 Days of Summer) is that of a bluegrass singer/guitarist, Didier, who falls in love with a tattoo artist, Elise, and introduces her to the music. She becomes a singer in his band, and they have an amazing, passionate relationship which culminates in the birth of a child, Maybelle. The child gets sick—that's actually where the movie starts, in a hospital.

Obviously, the sick child is the pivotal plot point, but the movie isn't really about that, it's really about how the two handle crisis/tragedy. And, despite their love of bluegrass, they have none of the cultural roots nor even similarities with the culture that bluegrass comes from.

They have no community, to speak of. They have no family beyond the three of them. The band they play in seem like good guys and sort of like family, but that's about it. They have no religion. Didier is an earnest atheist. When Maybelle looks to him for comfort at various points, he can't give it to her.

Nor is he of any help to Elise in that regard. If Didier is an atheist, Elise is a pantheist. She wears a cross, but burns incense on a statue of Buddha. (And while Christianity and Buddhism are not incompatible, this doesn't seem to be a case of someone who's studied both carefully and reconciled them; she just believes in everything.)

As such, when they have fights over Maybelle, they have nowhere to turn, and end up blaming each other. Elise accuses Didier of never wanting Maybelle in the first place, and Didier points out Maybelle's smoking and drinking.

Never are we more superstitious than when we are powerless to help the ones we love.

Didier begins to drive Elise away with his militant atheism, which breaks through in a really ugly anti-George W. Bush rant, where he blames the President for holding back stem cell research.

Now, I saw this in North Hollywood, heart of the TV media district, and I could hear people vocally agreeing with this rant. But, you see, this isn't an American movie; it's a Belgian movie, so it didn't have to take a particular side.

If you're paying attention, though, it's hard to not come to the conclusion that this is just another exercise in superstition. (I think the Academy wasn't really paying close attention or it wouldn't have nominated this for an Oscar.)

In fact, even if you're not paying very close attention, it's hard to avoid the final scenes where the filmmakers seem to be overtly telling us that Didier is wrong. Not about the politics; I mean, who really cares about that? But about his materialism and by proxy his atheism.

He's so stubborn that he fails to recognize that Elise has embraced the American ideal he said he most admired: The ability to start fresh. He misses it very badly, perhaps to the very end.

It reminded me a little of Steve Coogan's character in Philomena. We know for a fact where the bulk of the filmmakers' sympathies lie in that story, and yet it's hard to not observe that she is the noblest of the characters, and Coogan among the despicable wretches.

I think this is why the film scores lower with critics than regular audiences. The critics who picked up on it I think decided to throw out the term "melodrama" to mean "I didn't like it but I don't know or don't want to explain why".

Anyway, great acting from the two principals, Johan Heldenbergh (who was one of the authors of the original play) and Veerle Baetens. Adapted from the play by the director Felix Van Groeningen.

The Boy liked it, but he found it music-heavy (he's not into music, somehow), and, as I pointed out, he hasn't been outside a hospital tearing his hair out because he's worried his kid is going to die. (Pointed cough.)

Fun aside: On the way out I was interviewed by a Flemish reporter who wanted to know what Americans thought about this film and why we went to see it. I opened with "Well, we've seen everything else..." but really Flemish Bluegrass. That's a hook right there.

This movie is up against La Grande Bellezza, The Missing Picture and The Hunt, which were all great, and Omar, which we haven't seen.

When she asked, I told her I thought the Italian picture would win, but they're all worthy.

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