The Broken Circle Breakdown – Felix Van Groeningen and the attraction of opposites. (Sydney Film Festival Film Review)

This is a review I did for the Sydney Film Festival twelve months ago, but seeing as it is about to open in Sydney, I’ll bring the review forward to here.


The Broken Circle Breakdown is Felix Van Groeningen’s fourth film.  It is in competition at the Sydney Film festival this year and you can buy your tickets here.

It has been a huge success with the festival circuit, winning so far, Europa Cinemas Label, Panorama Audience Award (Fiction Film)- Berlin International Film Festival; Best Actress (Veerle Baetens), Best Screenplay (Felix Van Groeningen, Carl Joos)- Tribeca Film Festival; Politiken’s Audience Award- CPH:PIX and so on. It’s one of those films that critics have some problems with but audiences adore – and I have to confess, its difficult to say a bad word about it. It’s a film that skillfully works in the difficult to navigate terrain between head and heart and if it weren’t for a strange seeping into an anti-Bush political tirade (and who can’t forgive that?  The script a version of a speech I’ve heard from at least twenty of my friends) toward the end, it would be an almost flawless film. However, this one odd moment – despite arousing great sympathy – isn’t entirely believable and therefore reduces the film in artistic merit.


For a film to tackle the subject matter of “faith v’s atheism” with intelligence and accuracy is incredible in itself – both are such thorny issues these days. To make our atheist a romantic dreamer and our religious person a realist adds a respectful complexity to both points of view, softening each against the categorical imperative positions arguments of this nature tend to take. This is all to the credit of Carl Joos and Felix van Groeningen’s wonderful script – a script that can leave you with an unshakable conviction in the power of science as well as the gentle longing that you will become a star when you die. What is common to every human is the challenge of dealing with suffering, death and unshakable grief and the various ways we use what we have built as human creatures to cope with life when it deals out its cruelest blow. But also, the film examines the cruelty that lovers can inflict when they combine ideology and vulnerability to unleash an attack. She will accuse him of his defective genes, while he will accuse her of using a “relationship” with birds to overcome her grief. It’s chilling to come face to face with how much the person who knows you and loves you better than anyone else can hurt you when they are afraid.


However, The Broken Circle Breakdown is not just a wonderfully crafted script.  It is also a remarkably well edited film. It is the editing (alone) that manipulates feelings, ensuring the film never crashes into melodrama or anemic sappiness. As the title suggests, the narrative is circular, moving with great skill from past to present and into the future that never becomes confusing. Without giving away any spoilers, tragic moments are connected through music (which I will come to) and through ideological plot points, so that the narrative forms the flow of character development rather than linear story telling. This is so skillfully wrought that the depth of human feeling can be reached – something that would normally be achieved in the sacrifice of intellectual connection.


Along side of the clever script and excellent editing is an acting combination that sizzles. Veerle Baetens is Elise and Johan Heldenbergh is Didier, two actors with intense chemistry between them. These actors make us care deeply for their characters and never is there a moment when you can’t feel the love. Baetens particularly is gorgeous as the tattoo artist free spirit, her beauty so deftly contained in an indefinable fire within her. Scenes of her in an American Flag bikini lolling about seducing Didier on the hood of his truck, her body a mass of beautifully colored tattoos is one of the sexiest,and most exquisitely beautiful scenes of female sex appeal you will encounter. Even steeped in tragedy, the fire inside her glows so that we look upon her in wonder just as Didier does. Heldenbergh is a perfect match for her enormity, his physical size dwarfing her, his woolly hair hiding his face, his passion for music smouldering within him even when he doesn’t play. It is partly due to the believability of their love, that their conflicting ideologies seem so tragic.

baby broken circle

Add to all of this cinematic beauty, is the stunning bluegrass score Bjorn Eriksson. The music is central to the themes of the film, and both Heldenbergh and Baetens sing their own songs. The music is earthy and connected, despite the Flemish culture of the performers and the audience. It’s depth and richness reaches inside – again formed with intelligence rather than emotion. There are no “sappy” music scenes and yet I found myself crying in several of the song moments.  In many ways, with its circular narrative and natural crescendos, the film is like a piece of music as it hums and writhes its way through lives that occur as deeply enviable. If you’ve not been moved by anything said previously, the film is worth seeing for the music alone.


As I said above, if the film has flaws, it is in an odd preachy narrative section that starts early on with background footage of the twin towers coming down and results in an impassioned tirade against George Bush (and his religiosity) by Didier.  Heldenbergh does his best with the script – and it still left me in tears crying “yes yes” – but it screws with the narrative because of its art house flavor. This is a beautifully made film, but it is not heavy with symbolism.  To inject the symbolic toward the end, in the form of a speech on a stage, unfortunately feels clunky. In some ways it is a shame, and in others it is a welcome relief from the intense emotional roller coaster The Broken Circle Breakdown is. Relief does not come in the form of a break from the emotional, but in the break from the style.  I understand why it is seen as a flaw however, and a surface skim finds the moment irritating.

Broken Circle Breakdown

I know I have given a very positive review here. I was pleasantly surprised by The Broken Circle Breakdown. It is one of the most intensely emotional films I’ve ever seen – I am not a crier and I really cried in this film – and yet this depth is reached with so much intelligence and so much respect for the educated viewer, I simply allowed it to take me over. To have an experience of the places cinema can reach you, it is a film I highly recommend.

The Broken Circle Breakdown-

The Broken Circle Breakdown is Felix Van Groeningen’s fourth film.  It is in competition at the Sydney Film festival this year and you can buy your tickets here.