Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"The Broken Circle Breakdown": an eclectic, asynchronous tragedy, where Flanders looks like Texas

The Broken Circle Breakdown”, by Felix von Groeningen, is a curious film from Belgium, tragic and comic at the same time, and an homage to some other eclectic films usually viewed as belonging to other genres.  These other films might include “The Tree of Life”, “Judas Kiss”, “Mr. Nobody”, and, on the other hand, “Sweet Home Alabama”.  Sometimes, especially in the outdoor farm scenes involving images like black birds flying into windows and dropping, or dogs chasing roosters, I wondered if this were flat, low-country Flanders, or if it were Texas ranch country instead, especially with all the country music the married couple sings.
The couple is Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and Elise (Verle Baetens).  Didier (“Monroe”) is the romantic atheist and cowboy, who, toward the end of the film, gives a speech decrying religion, slamming George W. Bush his faith-based denial of stem-cell research (with the speech about a decent society’s crossing moral lines, with allusion to the Holocaust), to which he attributes the tragedy that befalls the couple’s young daughter, despite Europe’s more liberal stand on the matter.  Elise (“Alabama”) is religious, but one could not guess that from the plethora of tattoos all over her body.  There’s even one scene where, working as a tattoo artist, she decorates the outer forearm of a man, which would have been shaved for the procedure. 
The couple is quite passionate, complete with female screams of ecstasy.  This is the world of heterosexual marital sex as in the Song of Solomon.  Yet, Didier is well aware that others are different, and in his speech condemns homophobia.  The couple also shows plenty of bad habits.  “Alabama” smokes, and did so during her pregnancy, but she blames her husband’s drinking for the tragedy.  That gave him temporary jaundice, she says, and resulted somehow in her withdrawing breast feeding for their daughter.
The story is told out of sequence, as is common in existential science fiction films like a couple of those above – and this movie barely borders on sci-fi, at least in spirit.  The tragedy of the daughter’s leukemia, the chemotherapy and side effects, and the bone marrow transplant, and then the final sudden end, come back and forth, mediating the tone of the film.  This could have been a strictly medical drama, but it is never allowed to become that.  Instead, it loops back to grief, and to the couple itself.  There will be one more round of tragedy, which is not fair to give away.
There is one sequence of an encapsulated account of the 9/11 attacks and of Bush’s speaking about them at the end of the first day.
The official site (from Tribeca) is here.
Wikipedia attribution link for Belgium picture here. I was in the area once, in May 2001. 

I saw this before a fair crowd Tuesday night at Landmark E Street in downtown Washington DC. 

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