EIFF REVIEW: Belgian bluegrass drama hard to watch in more ways than one

Broken Circle Breakdown EIFF GigCity EdmontonThere are a number of worthy ideas you can take away from The Broken Circle Breakdown – the gala closer of the Edmonton International Film Festival, Saturday, Oct. 5 at 7 pm in the Empire City Centre 9 Cinemas. One, it’s pretty much the best romantic melodrama about Belgian bluegrass singers you’ll ever see. The film’s very existence disproves the notion that “everything has been done.”

Director Felix Van Groeningen’s film is a thought provoking rumination on love, life, death, America, religion and the very existence of God. You also don’t often see stem cells and bluegrass music discussed in the same movie.

Broken Circle Breakdown EIFF GigCity EdmontonTold in fragmented flashbacks and flash-forwards like a mixed up puzzle, the tale opens on the pedantic and passionate Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), the young Kris Kristofferson-like singer and banjo player in a bearded Belgian bluegrass band. He loves America – or so he thinks – especially the “country music at its most pure” it spawned. He falls in love with Elise (Veerle Baetens), a tattoo artist who also turns out to be a crackerjack bluegrass singer though she’d never even heard of Bill Monroe before she met Didier. Coincidence, you say?

There are so many musical interludes that this gut-wrenching film almost comes off like a bluegrass musical. If you’re not a fan, you may come to dread the inevitable appearance of the mandolins and dobros and sweet, lonesome vocal harmonies at particularly dramatic moments in the story. The plot plays the viewer like a fiddle as it is.

All is bliss – marriage, home on a very America-like farm, lovely daughter, bluegrass music – until a health crisis tests Didier and Elise’s relationship to the breaking point, brings up baggage that maybe wouldn’t have surfaced before, including the belief in life after death. One of the ironic points is that Didier seems to be an atheist yet is enamored with both a Christian nation and a particularly spiritually-based form of music. Elise, on the other hand, finds comfort in faith. Which side is better isn’t made clear – and that may be the film’s greatest achievement. Everybody has to figure this stuff out for themselves.

In what turns into a downward spiral of conflict, recriminations, heartbreak and that damned Soggy Bottom bluegrass music throughout, Broken Circle Breakdown is hard to watch in more ways than one. The English subtitles are the least of it.