When a filmmaker makes a religion versus reason movie, it is usually clear from the onset where the filmmaker’s philosophical leanings lie. The film is either a testament to how God can see someone through the worst tragedies of their lives or a look at how random life can be. It is hard to take an impartial look at both sides of the issue. It is even harder to stay neutral when your characters go through monumental breakdowns in order to arrive at what they believe (or don’t believe). However The Broken Circle Breakdown achieves this impartiality and gives us a modern study of just how easy it is to get bogged down in your beliefs (or non-beliefs).
Didier is a Belgium singer who is obsessed with old America. He sings bluegrass and plays banjo in a band. One day he meets Elise, a tattoo artist with her past literally written all over her. It is love at first sight. They soon move in together and Elise joins Didier’s bluegrass band. A little bit into their relationship, Elise finds out she is pregnant. What might seem like a shock at first, becomes a link to hold them together and keep their love strong. The girl is born as Maybelle and she is the light of their lives. But as she is turning six, she develops cancer. Maybelle is seriously sick. The doctors try everything, but nothing seems to work. Maybelle just gets sicker and sicker. Didier retreats to his atheist ideals, explaining one time to his sick daughter that the bird she found dead in the yard is just garbage now. Whereas Elise gropes around for a spiritual awakening, holding on fast to the cross that she gave Maybelle and has been passed down for generations. This friction and stress tests their relationship to an almost unbearable amount. It comes out when Didier explodes on stage and gives a long rant about the hypocritical nature of being a believer.
The presence of bluegrass standards in this film punctuate the emotions and the feelings of each character. Being on stage and singing these great songs of the past is able give these characters catharsis and find a way to express their rollercoaster emotions. The music is seen as a given in both of their lives, but becomes a crutch for both of them to lean on once things start to get hard. Even more so than each other. This is what makes Didier’s final rant against religion on stage even more shocking and poignant. He is decimating a ritual for Elise that keeps her sane and whole by inserting his thoughts and ideals. Each character has a great voice and an inherent emotional feel for the music that is surprising given their non-American (or even Appalachian Mountainian) status.
I think part of what makes this film so effective and heart wrenching is the slow revealing of the plot points of the film. The movie circles around itself, jumping forward and backward in time as the scenes relate to each other. So we don’t quite understand just how sick Maybelle is until about halfway through the film and we don’t see how Didier and Elise for first met until almost towards the end. Because we learn something new about the characters in each scene, the film comes off as a subtle study of this couple instead of an obvious and melodramatic rendering that it could so easily become. So I would recommend this movie if you are willing to cry and willing to listen to some great bluegrass music.