The Broken Circle Breakdown - DVD Review

'Groeningen clearly also has science versus religion on his agenda here, but handles the topic time and again with amateurish heavy-handedness.'

Much of The Broken Circle Breakdown’s success is reliant upon the audience connecting with the central couple, Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and Elise (Veerle Baetens). Unfortunately, I didn’t for the most part, which regularly made getting through Felix Van Groeningen’s bluegrass-fuelled familial drama something of a chore.

The blame for this fatal detachment from Didier and Elise cannot be laid at the feet of Heldenberg and Baetens, delivering as they do two solid performances which regularly provide the film’s saving graces. Also deserving of praise is Nell Cattrysse as Didier and Elise’s daughter Maybelle, a cancer sufferer, who impresses in an undeniably challenging role.

The problems come from the writing and direction of Groeningen. Too often the script feels inorganic, making vital moments ring false; a heated conversation between the married couple descends into something Groeningen thinks an argument should sound like, ending with the pair trading expletives in an entirely vacuous manner.

Groeningen’s choice to tell his story in non-linear fashion does work at times, but also contributes too often to the film’s flaws. We enter Didier and Elise’s story as six-year-old Maybelle is first diagnosed, with cuts back and forth to seven years prior to this - fairly early on in the couple’s relationship - throughout the first act. Whilst it’s at times intriguing to piece together how the pair moved from one set of circumstances to the other, Groeningen’s choice of where to first introduce us to Didier and Elise makes their relationship, and indeed their characters, seem somewhat underdeveloped for too long. By the time the director chooses to show us the very start of the relationship much further on in the film, it ends up as too little too late.

Elsewhere, The Broken Circle Breakdown’s problems are more straightforward. Outside of Didier and Elise, no character receives any sort of development. The other members of the couple’s bluegrass band feel most limited by this, making any scene involving them feel awkwardly shallow - a shame, seeing as they are often featured during what should be some of the film’s most emotionally charged scenes.

Groeningen clearly also has science versus religion on his agenda here, but handles the topic time and again with amateurish heavy-handedness. More than one scene sees atheist Didier rail against people’s beliefs holding back medical research which could have helped to save his daughter; but Groeningen’s lack of control as both writer and director means these outbursts feel both out of place and out of character, coming across as empty diatribes rather than heartfelt arguments either by Groeningen or the character he has put on screen.

Add to this a fairly regular line of inauthenticities (how, for example, can the couple afford to renovate the large house they live in on the income of small-time bluegrass musicians and Elise’s job in a tattoo parlour?) and The Broken Circle Breakdown adds up to a disappointing cinematic experience. Even the bluegrass music - at the start a welcome element to the story - ends up intruding, slowing down the story and being used in overly sentimental and unrealistic ways. The tale told here is undeniably, punishingly emotional (at several points too bleak and harrowing for its own good) but the flaws here, both large and small, mean Groeningen’s film consistently fails to resonate.

The Broken Circle Breakdown is out on UK DVD today.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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