Combustible Celluloid
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With: Johan Heldenbergh, Veerle Baetens, Nell Cattrysse, Geert Van Rampelberg, Nils De Caster, Robby Cleiren, Bert Huysentruyt, Jan Bijvoet
Written by: Carl Joos, Felix Van Groeningen, based on a play by Johan Heldenbergh, Mieke Dobbels
Directed by: Felix Van Groeningen
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Flemish with English subtitles
Running Time: 111
Date: 11/22/2013

The Broken Circle Breakdown (2013)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Didn't Leave Nobody But the Baby

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

There's a distinct difference between soap operas and weepies. I've never been very interested in soap operas. They use external means to dump misery and suffering on their characters. In other words, terrible things happen to them. It's passive storytelling. But a good weepie explores a character's inner suffering by visual means. It uses the art of filmmaking itself to suggest these emotions and draw them out.

Warning: From here on out, this review may contain spoilers.

Belgium's official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, The Broken Circle Breakdown is one of the former. Terrible things happen. A couple falls in love. They have a beautiful daughter. The daughter gets cancer. She goes through painful treatments. She dies. The father drinks and acts outrageously. The mother becomes enraged and inconsolable. They break up. She goes into a coma. He cries. He sings her a song.

How does director Felix Van Groeningen handle all this, and make it at all watchable for an audience? He shuffles the scenes around, playing them out of order. This way happy moments occur in-between the sad ones, which should potentially alleviate some of the dread, although it doesn't help much since we know the sad stuff is coming anyway. Furthermore, I'm not sure how this particular story justifies the use of this particular device. Is someone remembering all this in fragments? Is someone a time traveler? The movie is not clear.

The other thing that happens in this movie is that the husband, Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and wife Elise (Veerle Baetens) play in a bluegrass band. We get many scenes of the band, sweaty and ferocious, pouring their hearts out into music that is both sad and joyous. I think maybe this gets closer to what Van Groeningen had in mind for his movie; he wanted it to be a bluegrass song. But the shuffled order and the external, passive treatment of the story doesn't seem very bluegrass to me.

You'll notice that the film's poster tries to draw you in with a seduction scene, the tattooed, ponytailed, sexy Elise in a tiny bathing suit, splayed across the hood of a truck, her body language announcing to Didier that she's all his. Sounds nice, and the movie does have a few moments of open-hearted love and steamy sex, but they are all too quickly drowned out. The poster is just another indication that Van Groeningen doesn't really know how or why he wants to tell his miserable story.

The movie is competently made, and I liked its use of rural, small-town locations and wintry atmosphere. I can't fault any of the actors, especially sweet little Nell Cattrysse, who will steal a few hearts as the sick daughter. And the music is very well done; indeed, the movie teaches viewers a little something about bluegrass music and may even induct a few new fans. (Don't know who Bill Monroe is? You will now.)

I understand that many people out there enjoy stories like this, and if you're one of them, more power to you. As for me, The Broken Circle Breakdown isn't my idea of art, nor is it my idea of a good time.

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