“The Broken Circle Breakdown” rollicks along so jauntily at first, you hardly notice that worrisome sound coming from under its hood. Then, all of a sudden, the movie’s back wheels are spinning over a rocky ditch, and the carburetor is spewing hot tears.
Well, I guess you should expect that. After all, the movie does have both “broken” and “breakdown” in its title.
A tearjerker made up of the dangdest parts, this musical-dramedy-whatsit from Belgium centers on an engagingly odd couple. He’s fur-faced Tom Waits look-alike Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), lead singer of a bluegrass — yes, as in American Appalachian — band. She’s Elise (Veerle Baetens), a tattoo artist 10 years his junior, whose every inch of epidermis is quickly vanishing under a tide of ink. They meet cute in a sequence that happens well past the movie’s midway point . . . which calls for an explanation.
“Breakdown” has a teasing, sometimes maddening structure. Time is fractured here, reflecting the way memory works. Past and present mingle without borders. The movie sustains a propulsive forward thrust through music and montages, leapfrogging across different turning points in Didier and Elise’s seven-year relationship. One moment they’re exchanging vows, the next they’re meeting awkwardly during a period of estrangement. They’re having hot, first-date sex in Didier’s trailer parked beside the dilapidated farm he’s rehabilitating. Next, they’re going through their end-of-day, old-marrieds routine in the finished house.
Then there’s their daughter, Maybelle (named for the matriarch of the Carter Family, natch). We meet her as a schoolgirl, a toddler, a mound in Elise’s belly, and as a bald, scared child, as fragile as a porcelain doll dwarfed by the vast expanse of a hospital bed. At age six, she’s diagnosed with cancer. Fair warning, friends, especially parents: this movie has no qualms about putting viewers through an emotional wringer.
That’s both to its credit and detriment. Director Felix Van Groeningen succeeds for a long time in making you ignore that the movie is rattling full-speed toward a very melancholy side road. Stripped of its chronological antics and backwoods-holler soundtrack, it’s a pretty simple story. One with some last-act problems.
In delineating Didier and Elise’s clashing moral viewpoints — he believes in the bottom line of science and rationality, she veers toward a more spiritual viewpoint — the movie dumps a specific political issue into a story that otherwise has a fablelike timelessness. Didier rails against TV footage of George W. Bush vetoing stem cell research. His rage escalates into an onstage diatribe that disrupts his band’s concert, and the movie’s tone. It’s one instance where an artistic attempt to translate the specific into the universal fails to come off.
That’s a shame, but not fatal. Yes, the movie’s last act isn’t what I personally wanted, but it doesn’t detract from a great deal of lovely work. Actors Heldenbergh and Baetens are wonderful together, whether their characters are flirting or fighting. You can see in Heldenbergh/Didier’s eyes the realization that he’s hit a romantic jackpot with Elise. And Baetens has the right mix of steel and vulnerability to make us care for a character who sometimes tests our limits as much as she does Didier’s. (The actors sing their own songs, too, extremely well.)
So even if “The Broken Circle Breakdown” can’t sustain the promise of its first half, well, that’s just life. And the thing that comes after life, too.
“The Broken Circle Breakdown.” With Johan Heldenbergh, Veerle Baetens. Directed by Felix Van Groeningen. In Flemish and English, with subtitles. Unrated. 111 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.