Owing more than a debt to the unwieldy narrative schematics of Susanne Bier, director Felix Van Groeningen unsubtly runs the gamut in terms of testing the audience’s emotional breaking point by presenting an almost egregiously manipulative melodrama in The Broken Circle Breakdown. Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), a self-professed lover of Americana, and Elise (Veerle Baetens), both members of the same bluegrass band, see their relationship become increasingly strained as their daughter, Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse), is diagnosed with cancer and undergoes grueling chemotherapy. The film practically treats the child’s sickness as nothing more than a necessary plot point, employed in a way that piles on cloying sentiments without ever conveying any sort of affecting nuance.
Even in regard to the film’s general subtext, Van Groeningen displays insecurity in how to elegantly incorporate the various ideas at play before becoming explicitly outlined. In an otherwise beautifully realized sequence, Elise dons a U.S. flag bikini over her tattooed body, literally turning Didier’s Americaphilia into sex. After Van Groeningen plants TV broadcasts of George W. Bush in the background throughout the film to offer an ironic flipside to Didier’s wholesome bluegrass spirit, the clashing of this folksy Americana assumed by Didier with the country’s dubious current politics is nonetheless loudly explained through a climactic on-stage rant. Not only does this extended anti-Bush-policy monologue by Didier summarize the entirety of the film’s overriding theme of misplaced faith, but it also comes across as a desperate attempt at liberal pandering.
The Broken Circle Breakdown is too clumsily constructed in a nonlinear, elliptical fashion to register as dreamlike, but it does benefit from an array of handsomely shot and choreographed bluegrass performances that intermittently break up the somber mood. While the conventional drama scenes mostly elide compelling psychological context for Didier and Elise, the lengthy musical numbers ably show just how much the performances bring relief to the two struggling parents. These laudable asides also offer a reprieve from the film’s melodramatic excess: To cite a recurring thematic image featured ad nauseam, the film is most reminiscent of a bird continually flying into a plane of glass because it fails to see it. Van Groeningen similarly doesn’t know how to put a handle on his cumbersome story, and it becomes inevitable that things fall apart, literally wearing (much like Elise) its symbols like a tattoo.