Featuring: Veerle Baetens, Jan Bijvoet, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse, Geert Van Rampelberg, Nils De Caster, Robbie Cleiren, Bert Huysentruyt, Blanka Heirman
Director: Felix Van Groeningen
Writer: Felix Van Groeningen, Johan Heldenbergh
2013-14 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Somerville: 10–16 Feb, 8pm
Joondalup Pines: 18–23 Feb, 8pm
Verdict: A strange and ultimately maudlin cocktail of genres, the best ingredient of which is the vibrant bluegrass music.
Tattooist Elise (Veerle Baetens) and her musician lover Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) live modestly and happily in the Belgian countryside. They have a passionate relationship that has yielded a gorgeous little daughter, and are members of a vibrant bluegrass band called The Broken Circle Breakdown. Then their daughter is diagnosed with leukaemia, and the near-idyllic life they share begins to fall apart.
This odd cocktail of musical, romance and tragedy (or melodrama, depending on your response) is more head-scratcher than tear-jerker.
It starts promisingly enough. Didier and Elise are in the early stages of their relationship, in lust with each other and life. He’s an interesting character, a banjo-pluckin’ bluegrass muso who lives in a trailer in rural Belgium. He’s an Americaphile, and indeed, his band sounds American, singing in English and belting out their bluegrass toons with gusto and conviction that would do any of his legendary US muso heroes proud.
Elise is a walking advertisement for her tattooist business, a sexy blonde showing lots of skin adorned with elaborate tatts. Turns out she can also sing; after she and Didier become an item, she slots into a lead vocal role in his band.
They are almost deliriously happy, but of course the gods (and plotline) won’t abide that for long. Their little girl’s cancer diagnosis is, of course, a hell of a spanner in their spokes. Unfortunately, from this point the film itself begins to wobble, also.
The narrative begins conventionally enough, moving mostly in a linear direction, with a bit of flashing back and forward, but the child’s illness brings on a fearsome chronological zigzagging that never lets up. It’s more distracting than difficult to follow, with the exception of a tragic future event that is deliberately vague in its presentation and chronological setting, and therefore confusing. Spoiler consciousness precludes further elaboration here.
The chronological scene-shuffling is probably supposed to reflect the confused, nightmarish reality of Didier and Elise as they struggle to come to terms with their child’s illness and prognosis, and the changes wrought on their once joyous and carefree relationship. This fragmentation effect could have been allowed to emerge naturally out of the narrative and corresponding character development. Labouring the point structurally as is done here is not only unnecessary, but diffuses the momentum of the story and detracts from its emotional power.
Interspersed with the unfolding tragedy of Didier and Elise are band performances that remain curiously but not inappropriately upbeat; bluegrass is a strange musical creature of paradox, veritably whooping with celebration and joy, while a sense of the ephemeral, of damned mortals, lurks beneath. Dance and be merry now, for who knows what the morrow might bring…
Didier and Elise cope with their grief differently, which drives a wedge between them. Didier’s idealisation of the US collapses like New York’s twin towers when he sees Bush on TV spruiking the Christian fundamentalist view that stem cell research is wrong and insupportable (such research, if sanctioned officially, might have led to an effective leukaemia treatment). His rage subsequently boils over during a gig with the band, which he hijacks to deliver an impassioned anti-Christian anti-God tirade at a gobsmacked audience. It’s all too obvious that the character is a mouthpiece for the screenwriters. The speech is an excessive, didactic rave, ultimately unconvincing as an outpouring from Didier, and frankly, a bit embarrassing – and I say that as someone who sympathises with the views expressed.
Didier’s bitter and sometimes brutally imposed atheism is anathema to Elise, who finds comfort in believing in an afterlife, and even connects visits to the window sill from a blackbird with the spirit of her little girl. In one of the many flashbacks (or was it a flash forward; it’s hard to keep track), we learn that some of her tattoos cover the names of past boyfriends – in keeping with her tendency to cope with pain by camouflaging it. It’s a strategy that contrasts starkly with Didier’s grim brand of humanism.
The disintegration of their relationship under the enormous strain of grief and their diverging coping mechanisms is handled well enough, but there is a development that brings the piece to its conclusion that is far from convincing. Again, I can’t be more specific without giving away what happens. Suffice it to say that a character’s actions need to be psychologically plausible – and in this instance, that’s just not the case.
I dunno, maybe others will be rummaging for the tissues, but this one left me cold, the music excepted. That’s irresistible as performed here – even if, like me, you’re not a bluegrass fan. It’s the saving grace of this otherwise maudlin little number.
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