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'The Broken Circle Breakdown' weds music to harrowing tragedies

The Belgian import "The Broken Circle Breakdown" tells of a musician couple whose daughter winds up with terminal cancer.

Verrle Baetens and Jonah Heldenbergh play musician marrieds with bad luck in "The Broken Circle Breakdown." Caption: Tribeca Film Verrle Baetens and Jonah Heldenbergh play musician marrieds with bad luck in "The Broken Circle Breakdown."
Caption: Tribeca Film

‘The Broken Circle Breakdown’
Director: Felix Van Groeningen
Stars: Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” the Belgian import “The Broken Circle Breakdown” fills out a good chunk of its running time with the performance of old roots music. Unlike “O Brother” — an eccentric riff on Greek myth only the Coen Brothers could dream up — it’s a heavy, often brutal melodrama that tortures its nice characters with unending unpleasantries. Not for nothing are there two forms of “broke” in the title.

It starts off nice enough. Aggressively tattooed singer Elise (Veerle Baetens) goes to the remote farm home of aggressively hairy banjo player Didier (Johan Heldenbergh). Their happiness doesn’t last long. No sooner have they made the beast with two backs does the screenplay jump to years later, with our lovebirds in a hospital, doting on their young daughter, who’s sick with terminal cancer.

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Is this another movie where parents battle against the odds to keep their child and their love? Only some of the time it is. The first half jumps back and forth between Elise and Didier’s early life. No sooner do we get used to watching them get married, building up his tattered house and performing in a popular band does the script pull the rug out from under us, throwing us back to the nasty present.

Things get far worse in the second half, which becomes one of those endurance tests where you wonder how horribly the filmmakers — including Heldenbergh, on whose play this is based — can hurt its heroes. The time-jumping soon becomes more aggressive. A major event not revealed in full till the end is shown around the midway point, forcing the viewer to spend the remainder of the film wondering at what point the story will catch up to it and reveal exactly how bad it is.

This is effective if dubious filmmaking, ratcheting up emotions by gruesomely manipulating them. It would be cheap if the filmmaker didn’t mean what they were saying. They do. They want their story to have the poetic depths of one of the songs the characters sing, which tell of anguish and pain but do some in melodic, comforting and deeply felt ways. And the leads give anguished but nuanced performances. Heldenbergh, in particular, is fantastic, playing his increasing yen for rants against politics and religion as an off-shoot of his helpless anger. They help keep things recognizably human.

 
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