Advance word on this Flemish tearjerker was formidable, but I'm afraid I couldn't quite see past the oddness of its conceit: to redo Blue Valentine with songs. Felix van Groeningen's film at least justifies its title's eccentricity: the relationship between a beardy bluegrass singer (Johan Heldenbergh) and a tattooed free spirit (Veerle Baetens) is set out as fragments of life before and after the death of their child; scrapbooking nudey frolics alongside heavily worn regret.
The music lends it whatever unity it has: though there's a comic incongruity in the idea of all this banjo-plucking going down in northern Europe – the spirit of Rednex lingers – it's chiefly regarded as a fleeting source of solace. The leads emote their hearts out, and it'll doubtless make a resonant soundtrack album – but van Groeningen needs those tunes to carry us over his somewhat contrived and flatpack-like vision of bohemia.
• This article was amended on Friday 18 October 2013. This review lost a star on its way from the newspaper to the website. The published star rating should have been three stars. This has been corrected.
An unconventional melodrama about a couple dealing with their young daughter’s leukemia, The Broken Circle Breakdown is an amalgam of disparate genres and impulses—part bluegrass musical, part cancer drama, and part soapbox for stem-cell research. It’s based on a play by Johan Heldenbergh who stars in the film as Didier, a gentle but irreligious bluegrass musician whose wild wife Elise (Veerle Baetens) is a tattoo artist and singer.
Recounted out of chronological order, episodes from the couple’s past and future play out like a rambling Appalachian melody that circles back on itself. Didier and Elise meet, make beautiful bluegrass—and smokin’ hot back-of-the-pickup-truck love—and find their relationship irrevocably transformed by the illness of their daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse). The child’s suffering is depicted unflinchingly: as she vomits and loses her hair, you get the fleeting sense of watching a horror film.
Felix Van Groeningen’s film strikes some powerful emotional chords, even as its flashback/flash-forward formula wears thin. In one heart-warming scene, Didier’s shaggy bandmates serenade Maybelle. The honeyed musical performances are one of the film’s most appealing aspects.
Angry, Didier takes to lengthy denunciations of George W. Bush, the pope, and, bizarrely, “Yahweh,” to Elise’s growing exasperation. (Who could blame her?) Touching if not always coherent, The Broken Circle Breakdown is a strange film but one worth watching.