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Byron Shire
December 2, 2021

Broken Circle Breakdown

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These are the movies that you hang out for – the ones that amount to something, the ones that talk about life as most of us know it and experience it, with real people dealing with real problems.

By day, Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) is a welder, but at night he plays banjo in a bluegrass band that does the pub and club circuit in Belgium. 

He meets the beautiful, tattooed Elise (Veerle Baetens) and she moves into his ramshackle brick farmhouse with him before eventually being included as the group’s singer.

Elise falls pregnant, to the initial ire of Didier, but the child, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) – named after June Carter’s daughter – is gorgeous and both Elise and Didier become doting parents. To their utter despair, Elise is diagnosed with cancer.

This is a profoundly moving love story, harrowing and heartbreaking, but, despite the grief, somehow uplifting. It is told by director Felix van Groeningen in time-jumps that occasionally threaten to fracture the fluency of his narrative – the opening scene is of the parents receiving the doctor’s bad news – but he holds them together with clear-eyed composure so that they all fit logically together at the end.

It’s quite a while since I have been so taken by a performance as I was by Baetens’s – she is extraordinary as the bold but fragile young mother who is put through the wringer (that she resembled a close acquaintance made it doubly affecting).

The more volatile Didier, whose inclination is to rage at the world, does not project the same warmth, but his character is true and the conflict that corrodes the couple’s relationship – his uncompromising practicality opposed to Elise’s yearning for spirituality – is handled with the utmost, if hurtful honesty.

And then there is the music, which is fantastic and intended to be heard as a sustaining force, as a means of explaining the journey along with which Didier and Elise and little Maybelle must make their sad passage.

A wonderful film. Try to catch it if it screens anywhere nearby.

~ John Campbell

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