Movie review: Tragedy plus time equals “Broken Circle Breakdown”

By Columbus Alive
From the January 23, 2014 edition

For all the complaining I do about the Academy Awards — it’s not a good gauge of the best movies, people — the nominations can sometimes shine light on movies that deserve the attention.

This week, “The Broken Circle Breakdown” opens at the Gateway fresh off its nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s a devastatingly sad movie that is beautifully constructed and performed. Whether you’re going because you’re an Oscar completist or not, the Belgian import deserves your attention.

Elise (Veerle Baetens) is a tattoo shop owner. Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) plays in a bluegrass band. We see years of their lives play out in a shuffled order, as scenes of their falling in love intercut with the young couple coping with a terminal cancer diagnosis for their young daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse).

“Broken Circle Breakdown” is based on a stage play written by Heldenbergh. Some may find the non-chronological structure to be a challenge — as a viewer, you sometimes don’t know where you are in the timeline of this romance.

But director Felix Van Groeningen uses this to devastating effect, as tender scenes hit like a hammer in the context of larger tragedies, working much the way Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible” did with its backward chronology.

The couple’s shared love of American bluegrass culture also wonderfully incorporates the mournful music into the tale — although I would caution that just being a bluegrass fan may not be enough for you to love this film as much as I did.

The performances by the leads are raw across a broad range of emotion. It’s hard to imagine one without the other as we see a couple come together and be torn apart.

I always hate the gimmick when superlatives are thrown about early in the film year, but “Broken Circle Breakdown” is the most devastating, most melancholy movie I’ve seen in 2014. It may hold that title.

Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film