Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 19, 2013 10:27 am 
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Fractured melodrama screams for attention

Felix van Groeningen's Flemish-language film The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium's 2013 entry in the Best Foreign Oscar competition, is nothing if not ambitious. It uses a very fractured time scheme, warm musical interludes, and a level of heart-tugging drama that is beyond operatic. If it works for you it may be deeply moving, but the overkill here is palpable despite good acting and charismatic leads.

First of all there's a young child with cancer. Then there's the passionate and tormented love affair of the couple whose little girl, six-year-old Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), gets so sick, causing an upheaval their relationship doesn't really survive. The wife Elise (Veerle Baetens) in fact decides on suicide. Meanwhile the relationship is dramatized by the intense rationalism of the husband, Didier (Johan Heldenbergh). He also fights with his wife, who's religious and wants to believe, as did their child, that death isn't the end. The couple fall in love at first sight, but sparks of incompatibility fly -- in the film's strongest moments. (The sex scenes are intense but rather routine, and the texture of everything here looks conventional next to that other current example of love story overkill, Abdelletif Kechicne's Blue Is the Warmest Color, NYFF 2013). Elise is a tattoo artist and tattoo parlor owner and is covered with tattoos. Didier would not want to mark his body thus. Somehow the filmmakers feel obliged to bring in the Twin towers and George W. Bush's veto of stem cell research. Didier blames religious fanatics represented by Bush for his daughter's death. When he interrupts a climactic concert after her passing to deliver a harangue on this topic it's not just that his behavior is inappropriate and likely to offend the audience at the concert; the filmmakers seem to be inappropriate too, losing touch with the texture of their story.

The emotional complexity of all this, the couple's incompatibility, the child's tragedy, the wife's self-destruction, is given a palpable shape, its own special logic, perhaps, by imposing a highly fractured chronology, cutting the film so the child's illness is mixed in with the couple's first meeting, and the wife gets pregnant and has a baby while the child is in the hospital getting chemotherapy. A rush to the hospital to save the wife is intercut with her suicide attempt and that suicide attempt is mixed back with the first meeting and another meeting after the couple has broken up. Perhaps to make sense of this constant alternating of joyous and sad moments, the film is full of jaunty, well-performed live music, because the husband besides being an artisan and carpenter is a serious professional country and Bluegrass banjo player and singer who belongs to a successful band. Somewhat inexplicably, since at the couple's first meeting the wife doesn't know what Bluegrass is, she becomes one of the lead singers in the group. The performances are good, if they're mostly all covers rather than original songs, and the husband is a big handsome attractive man resembling the young Kris Kristoferson. The group even sings at the child's burial and (minus her, of course) in the hospital when the plug is pulled on the comatose Elise. These are powerful musical moments and are a bold move that draws you willy nilly into he film's overflow of powerful emotion at those emotional key points.

Hardly a single moment of this film is anything but theatrical and operatic. Because it's in Flemish (though all the songs are in English, which everybody speaks, or sings in, with a perfect accent) it's exotic; and the mise-en-scène is rich. The couple lives out in the country with horses and a shiny big truck and first live in a trailer and then when the baby is coming (which Didier at first seems opposed to) they move into the adjoining farmhouse that they restore with new masonry and murals. There is so much excess material that in the extremely fractured, semi-avant-gardist sequence of the wife's suicide and death there's a quick scene cut in of the little girl chasing a black and white baby pig. Where did that come from? Was it needed? It's one more thing that illustrates the filmmakers' passionate commitment -- and their utter, partly winning, partly somewhat appalling, lack of restraint. And even viewers who vote more strongly for this film -- which is unquestionably more than average accomplished -- tend to concede that after Maybelle's death about 45 minutes in the mixed up cutting begins to confuse the trajectory, even making the scenes hard to identify, particularly when Elise appears in an ambulance.

Those critics who say this avoids being maudlin are incomprehensible. This is a Halllmark Card melodrama that hides its banality with its flashy technique and engaging performances, sung, played and acted (it's based on an original musical drama). Its camouflage is to keep you guessing and never let you think. At the end, I not only felt manipulated. I was uncertain that anything had really felt real. Life is not all drama. The Broken Circle Breakdown's refusal to allow a single quiet, mundane moment makes it feel like a movie, and only a movie. It's impressive. But it's unfortunately fake.

The Broken Circle Breakdown, 111 mins., opened in 2012 in Belgium and the Netherlands, but debuted internationally at the Berlinale in Feb. 2013, showing a Tribeca and numerous other fests. It is scheduled for US release 1 Nov. (Its mixed US reviews averaged out well in its favor according to Metacritic's rating of 71.) It came out 28 Aug. in France. Screened for this review at MK2 Beaubourg, Paris, 19 Oct. In France its title is Alabama Monroe (Allociné press rating 3.7, with both enthusiastic reviews and some strong dissents, as in the US). The witty Anthony Lane reviewed it in The New Yorker, where he at least much preferred it to Richard Curtis' silly About Time -- NYFF 2013.)

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