Science-versus-religion debates don’t usually feature music this good.
Set amidst the Belgian cowboy scene – at least I’m assuming there’s a scene – The Broken Circle Breakdown centers on Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), the front couple of a revival band inspired by the likes of Hank Williams and Bill Monroe. Liberally flashing back and forth in time, director Felix Van Groeningen gives us alternating glimpses of their early courtship, eventual musical life together and later hardship. The movie is a bit of a cat-and-mouse game, one that verges on exploitation when Elise and Didier’s daughter (Nell Cattrysse) is diagnosed with cancer and her condition generates much of the suspense.
Thankfully, there’s a rawness to the medical scenes – and the two lead performances – that keeps the movie from becoming manipulative or cloying. Baetens, in particular, avoids treacle by having Elise on a constant simmer. She holds her despair in as best she can – “We do our crying at home,” she tells Didier – but will on occasion suddenly lash out, as when a hospital worker interrupts her daughter’s sleep by noisily bringing lunch into the room.
Baetens avoids treacle by having Elise on a constant simmer.
What about the science and religion, you ask? The Broken Circle Breakdown itself doesn’t really get to that until its final third, which is unfortunate. We’ve been clued in already that Didier is a bit of an angry atheist, but it isn’t until late in the film that we get a sense of Elise’s attachment to spirituality. Framed alongside the bitter reality of a seriously sick child, this tension between the couple could have been a riveting element, but it’s at turns vaguely and bluntly handled. Elise never gets a chance to clarify what her spirituality actually means, while Didier – previously a thoughtful if passionate character – turns into a raving shouter. (Let’s just say he develops a one-sided feud with the stem-cell policies of George W. Bush.)
Still, there are plenty of grace notes that help the movie succeed on a smaller scale. There is, for instance, the irony of the fact that Didier’s repertoire includes Christian traditionals (the film’s title comes from “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”). There is also the quick kiss Didier gives Elise on the shoulder during one performance in an impulsive attempt at reconciliation. And throughout, the musical numbers achingly capture the way song can offer refuge, romance, catharsis and religion, sometimes all at once.