Thank You for giving me an opportunity to revisit not only one of my favorite Lost Weekend films, but one that became one of my favorite movies of all time. Broken Circle Breakdown was literally the first film shown at our first Lost Weekend. It wrecked me, made me cry, made me think about it the entire following day, no three days, made me go buy the soundtrack, listen to it incessantly…saying this film had a profound impact on me is a vast understatement.
The structure of this Belgian film with Flemish subtitles initially confuses the viewer. It flashes forward, back and sideways. Veerle Baetens plays Elise, a tattoo artist and shop owner who is herself the best advertisement for her craft- she is covered in tattoos neck to toe. Beautiful, whimsical, and deeply meaningful pictures stretch across almost every inch of her. She meets Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), a bluegrass musician who wanders into her shop and instantly dives deeply into her heart. He is smitten as well- and I don’t use that word lightly or snarkily— these two actors achingly portray the most deep, abiding love birds of any movie I have ever seen.
Their love story unfolds as the film does, backwards, forwards and sideways. The film begins during a particularly harrowing time in their relationship, then floats backwards to show the viewer how they met and fell in love. Their courtship is dreamy and sexy, the lighting throughout the film but especially during their love scenes is a filmy, natural, gorgeous light. As a photographer I was envious of director Felix Van Groeningen’s ability to use light so purely in just about every scene. For me it was almost an extra character in and of itself.
Didier is hopelessly in love with all things American, especially authentic, Appalachian music. He knows the history of Bill Monroe (the father of Bluegrass), reveres Maybelle Carter, mother of the Carter Sisters, names his banjo Maybelle, and Elise and Didier eventually name their daughter Maybelle. His band plays intricate, foot stomping music, and when he invites Elise to join them onstage and he hears how beautifully she sings his music…the look on his face is pure and unadulterated respect, surprise, and love.
Another aside about the music in the film: usually, unless Didier and his band are playing, there is no other background music. This too, becomes important, and lets the viewer become almost a part of the story. Sometimes background music makes us instantly aware that we are being entertained, that the action up on the screen is put there for us. This lack of noise, or sound, like in The Automatic Hate, is a powerful tool to make the viewer feel so much more.
But of course, this isn’t Leave it to Beaver, so the film does take some sad and dark and anguishing turns. Van Groeningen basically asks the audience, “How Much?” How much can you love someone? How much are you willing to make someone else the total and complete focus of your life? How much will it cost you? How much will you resent it? How much loss and grief can a couple withstand? These are hard, human, relatable questions, which is why I had such a difficult time shaking it after it was over. It crawled up into my brain and heart and curled up and really wouldn’t leave.
The emotion portrayed by these brilliant, brilliant actors (including the young actress who played their daughter, Nell Cattrysse, who was simply exquisite. I don’t think there is anything more lovely than hearing a six year old little girl speaking Flemish—squeee!) was also a character, a thing unto itself. The emotion was so present and so heavy and so….there; almost like you could pluck it right out of the air.
What this film illustrated to me above all else was, marriage is based on faith. Not capital F faith, but the faith each person decides to put in the other. You are basically saying to the other person, look, I really have no idea what the future holds or what is going to happen, but I am willing to join with you, above everyone else, and give it a go. Are you? And do you really mean it? How much are you willing to give? To put up with? How Much?
(P.S. GO BUY THE SOUNDTRACK!)