If religion is merely a palliative, are those who choose to believe in it fools? Or are they just desperate for solace from life's cruel vicissitudes? Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen poses these questions with severity and tenderness in his new film, The Broken Circle Breakdown. The film revolves around Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), a bluegrass musician, and his wife Elise (Veerle Baetens), a tattoo artist, tracing their relationship from its blissful conception to its tragic conclusion. When they first meet, the two fall in love almost instantly, bonding over their shared enthusiasm for American music and culture. In the beginning, their relationship is perfect: a whirlwind of sex and emotional intimacy, buoyed by the fervor of performance once Elise joins Didier's band as a singer. But when their young daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) becomes terminally ill, the fairy tale ends and the two start to question everything they hold dear: love, god, each other.
Like his last film, 2009's The Misfortunates, Broken Circle is told out of sequence, with moments from the past and present woven together: late in the film, when the couple have reached their emotional nadir, Groeningen casually brings us back to their wedding, performed humorously by an Elvis impersonator. This technique cushions the story's bleakest portions in moments of effortless levity. Yet it also makes their eventual collapse even more difficult to bear, as each vignette from the past lends their relationship more nuance and life. And that truly is what drives this film from beginning to end: the love between Didier and Elise, vividly and beautifully realized. Theirs is a relationship that we wholeheartedly believe in, thanks in large part to the stellar performances by Heldenbergh and Baetens (who picked up the award for Best Actress from the Tribeca Film Festival). They create characters who are exuberant and full of life, and then they slowly, torturously draw them into despair before our eyes. The effect is such that, by the end, their emptiness mirrors our own.