The Broken Circle Breakdown is neither happy nor perfect, but it is effective.
Co-Writer/Director Felix Van Groeningen uses a dual-narrative structure that cuts between timelines. Usually it does not offer expository cues to indicate temporal shifts.
In some ways, Groeningen’s non-linear structure livens up a straight-forward story about a couple that falls in love, starts a family and then faces turmoil. In other ways, it proves problematic.
On the one hand, throughout the movie’s riveting first half, Groeningen’s editing seamlessly transitions between emotions, making the audience feel equal parts joy and melancholy, delicately making us feel life’s highs as well its lows.
On the other hand, The Broken Circle Breakdown’s second half suffers from seemingly random insertions of paramedics helping someone in an ambulance. Here the narrative structure is still temporally non-linear, but that fact isn’t initially clear. Once it becomes so, the ambulance sequence doesn’t generate mystery; it spoils events and thereby dulls emotion.
As problematically, the movie’s second half gets bleaker with each new scene, a fact that is sensible given context, but also renders The Broken Circle Breakdown progressively more melodramatic.
For all of that, the film is still effective throughout. Largely because its central characters, Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Jonah Heldenbergh), are multi-dimensional and interesting.
The actors are equally successful. Jonah Heldenbergh brings forth Didier’s moral struggle adeptly. Later, he powerfully portrays his character’s misplaced rage.
Veerle Baetens is even better. In her hands, Elise is always enchanting and just as sympathetic, no matter her actions.
Moreover, The Broken Circle Breakdown uses bluegrass music skillfully. In addition to helping us understand Elise and Didier, the music heightens emotion and transitions between scenes.
The film’s cinematography is just as impressive. Its muted color palette and shifting lighting create a sober mood befitting on-screen events.
The costumes and wardrobes do the same. For example, when Elise and Didier are happiest, their clothes are revealing and colorful.
Still, The Broken Circle Breakdown has additional flaws. First, secondary characters are so underdeveloped that they are effectively nameless.
Second, one of the picture’s final scenes proves problematic, if only because Elise’s behavior is too ambiguous. (So as not to spoil anything, I am choosing not to expound this thought.)
Despite its flaws, however, this is a gripping picture, not least because it is rife with subtle themes: the dichotomy of life; the disconnect between science and faith; the effects of grief; and so forth.