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Bluegrass film explores the angst of contemporary life

The Broken Circle Breakdown

Director, Felix van Groeningen

Rialto Cinemas

I don’t really like country and western music. Years ago I went to see Robert Altman’s film Nashville, not knowing it was a celebration of country music.

It is one of the great films about American society but I still didn’t like country and western music.

Last week I went to see The Broken Circle Breakdown, an intriguing title which suggested lots of things. It was about country bluegrass music and was one of the best films of the year.

As in Nashville the music and musicians are like the chorus in a Greek drama providing a commentary on the characters and events of the film.

The film is not set in Nashville but in Belgium where Didier, a European cowboy, and Elise, a tattoo store operator, lead a prosaic rural life along with perfuming with a small country bluegrass band. Their angelic seven-year-old daughter Maybelle, howeve, has to have treatment for a medical condition. The impact of her condition has a crippling impact on the lives of the couple whose relationship starts to unravel.

The film moves from observing their contented life style to a harsh commentary on the nature of life and death. Like the title of the film and one of the songs, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the film is a meditation on the endless cycle of life and death. Among this are themes about the conflicts between religion, science and politics and the ways in which we deal with grief. It’s an incredibly powerful film that initially lulls one into a generally feel-good state, only to assault you with emotional outburst and verbal tirades. Johan Heldenbergh as Didier presents a man with a pragmatic approach to life who accepts what life has presented him with until he has to deal with the way in which religion and science have dealt him a bad hand. He turns the amiable cowboy into a tortured soul. Veerle Baetens’ Elise is more of a romantic who doesn’t just wear her heart on her sleeve, her tattooed body  records her life, her encounters with life and her boyfriends.

The outstanding performance comes from Nell Cattrysse who plays the couple's child, Maybelle, who conveys the wonderment, confusion and fears of childhood.

This quiet film about ordinary lives lived in rural Belgium manages to say more about the angst of contemporary life and culture than many heavy-weight films. It seems to have struck a chord with audiences as well winning the Audience Award at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film

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