The title of the The Broken Circle Breakdown, a major hit in its native Belgium and an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in the U.S., is a riff on the American country spiritual “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” This is the story of a great love and a devastating loss, and it indeed confronts a breakdown, both figurative and literal, in the family circle. The song opens the film, performed by a bluegrass band in Belgium fronted by Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), a one-time punk rocker who fell in love with American roots music. He learned to play the banjo because it’s the closest instrument to the wail of the rock guitar. At least that’s how he explains it to Elise (Veerle Baetens), a tattoo artist who has turned her own body into a canvas for her work, on their first date.
That first date comes later in the film. Our introduction to Didier and Elise is in 2006 as they await results from a test that their young daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), named for Maybelle Carter of course, is undergoing. They are trying to hold it together to give their little girl all the strength and optimism they can muster. As this present-day drama unfolds, we slip back seven years to the early, heady days of their romance. It’s practically love at first sight and they form an instant connection; the way the flashbacks jump through their life together, it looks like she moves in the next day. Their personal harmony is picked up in the band, where she joins the ensemble in duets with Didier, then as a lead singer and guitar player. His stunned, defensive reaction to the news that she’s pregnant is the only sour note of their love song and he quickly recovers by starting a verse.
Inside Llewyn Davis (Sony, Blu-ray, DVD, On Demand), the latest by the Joel and Ethan Coen, was almost entirely overlooked at the Oscars this year. Perhaps that’s because, despite the astounding recreation of the Greenwich Village scene and an atmosphere and texture that you can almost feel through the screen, struggling folk singer Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is not a particularly likable guy. Which is not to say he’s a villain or even a bigger jerk than some of the folks around him, but while he’s not mean-spirited or malevolent (well, apart from that one time, and you’ll know it when you see it), he is insensitive and self-absorbed. Despite the beauty of his musical performances, he doesn’t connect with people. And he certainly doesn’t get what folk audiences see in the rest of the musicians struggling for an audience at the local folk clubs.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a road movie that circles back on itself in pretty much every way, a road to oblivion that Llewyn tramps in hope of finding his success, but is not a success story. Llewyn has been called “a loser” by some critics, but that’s not fair. His failure isn’t artistic, it’s commercial, and he endures the bad luck that afflicts so many of the hard-luck characters of the Coen Bros. universe without the comic bounce or dogged resilience that saves those few who persevere. That sly, sardonic Coen tone is more understated here, found in the little details of existence and the odd nuances of the offbeat characters (and John Goodman is truly one outsized, offbeat creation as a jazz musician with a heroin addiction) and the unusual situations that get amplified and echoed throughout the film. Just don’t expect the punchlines or big dramatic payoffs you get from other filmmakers. It’s not altogether satisfying necessarily, but neither does it let go when it’s over. The music, which T-Bone Burnett once again helped create for the Coens, is superb.
The Broken Circle Breakdown (Tribeca, DVD, Digital, VOD), one of five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year (it lost to The Great Beauty), is devastating. And I mean that in all the best ways. The story of a passionate love rocked by tragedy, it is both joyous and anguished, celebratory and sad. It’s set in a subculture of bluegrass aficionados in Belgium (who knew?), where it is practically love at first sight for banjo player and singer Didier (Johan Heldenbergh, who also wrote the original play) and tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens), who soon joins the band as the sole female voice in the male harmonies. When their child, a little girl showered with love, is diagnosed with a deadly illness, they face the crisis in very different, unharmonious ways.
Director Felix Van Groeningen breaks up the timeline, introducing the couple as the try to hold it together while their daughter undergoes hospital tests and procedures and then flashing back to their early romance to contrast with the contemporary story. The structure gets more fractured as it continues, amping up the anxiety and the urgency of their ordeal. But while the film doesn’t flinch from the heavy toll it takes on Didier and Elise and their relationship, this isn’t all about ordeal. Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens are compelling performers who invite you to invest in their lives and the band provides a community of support and love for them and their daughter. The music they make, all covers of classic bluegrass songs, overflows with joy, just as the romance that plays out in flashback. The triumph of Van Groeningen is wrapping the heartbreak and anger up in the love and the support and leaving us celebrating what was rather than mourning what’s lost.