In “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” Elise (Veerle Baetens) softly sings the bluegrass song “Wayfaring Stranger,” with its lyric about a bright land where “there’s no sickness, toil or danger”; her voice is so tiny it almost fades away, but there’s a strength within that holds it together. This film, the Belgian entry for the foreign-language film Academy Award, explores an entirely different land: one full of illness and grief, navigated by a couple not certain if love will get them through.
Elise and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh, who also wrote the play on which “The Broken Circle Breakdown” was based) meet and fall in love, united by their passion for American bluegrass music. (“America,” says Didier,” is the best place on Earth — a country of dreamers.”) They marry when Elise becomes pregnant and find joy in their beautiful child, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse). But, in an early scene — this movie plays with time, bringing us forward and backward in Elise and Didier’s relationship — we learn that little Maybelle has cancer and may not live much longer.
This is terribly sad stuff, and “The Broken Circle Breakdown” unapologetically explores melodrama; these characters experience big, dramatic emotions, and the movie rides on those waves. What’s most moving about it, though, is how bluegrass music is used to echo and underline those emotions; how perfectly those gentle voices and plucking strings speak the language of the heart. (The movie’s title comes from the song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” sung at its beginning, and again in a key scene later.) “If I needed you, would you come to me?” sings Elise, near the end. “I would swim the seas for to ease your pain.”
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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