Our primitive understanding of mortality, fueled by millennia of fear of the unknown, has produced a cottage industry of death’s portents, ranging from cloaked reapers to Tony Todd to the infamous orange in The Godfather.
In some movies, such symbols can be less allusive than material objects that stand in for themselves. Take, for example, The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium’s nominee for Best Foreign Language Film this year, now in select theaters and available at iTunes and Amazon. It follows a young couple suffering the devastating loss of their young daughter to cancer. Director and co-writer Felix Van Groeningen sets up a complicated dialectic between the married couple comprised of Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), a bluegrass banjo player madly in love with America, and Elise (Veerle Baetens), a free-spirited tattoo artist who joins Didier’s band and also, perhaps surprisingly, maintains a deep religious faith.
The battle lines are drawn after they lose their child. Didier is furious at, among other things, then-president George W. Bush, because he sees Bush’s Christian contortions towards stem-cell research ultimately leading to the lack of what might have been lifesaving breakthroughs. We see in flashbacks that Elise gave her ailing six-year-old daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) the Jesus necklace that had been passed down in her family for generations, and now believes there is a possibility she has returned to her in the form of a bird, tapping one afternoon at the window of what was her room. Other symbols go largely unnoticed by the characters themselves, but insistently apparent to us: during their early courtship, the couple’s small TV blares out live coverage of 9/11 as the Towers are hit, but neither one of them is paying enough attention to watch it.
Fortunately, Van Groeningen and his several co-writers (including original playwrights Johan Heidenbergh and Mieke Dobbels) ate too clever to leave his characters as only one-dimensional mouthpieces for his ideas. Didier, for all his forced rationality, is the one who becomes thunderously unhinged at a concert, railing against Bush as the incarnation of religion’s syrupy alternatives to the bleak reality set before us. Elise, though the dreamier of the two, desperately looks to place blame on herself and her husband, ultimately leading her down a thorny path of further tragedy.
Throughout the couple’s arguments and despairs, the film’s tautological systemology hums along, allowing the viewer to see its many recurrent tropes through both Elise and Didier’s eyes. Close framing makes it hard to miss her many tattoos, especially those depicting winged things, from birds to angels: when she first meets Didier at her tattoo parlor, he suggests that no one symbol could ever remain relevant to him for the rest of his life, and Elise points out all the tattoos on her body that once represented one thing—for instance, an homage to a boyfriend at the time—but transformed into something else.
Didier, as much in love with music as he is with his wife, can’t fathom the connection between her religious outpouring and the soulful richness of the sad bluegrass standards he and his band perform, including “Just Over in the Glory Land” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” It’s certainly no coincidence that Didier the atheist falls for some of the most spiritually powerful music in the American canon, and for a deeply spiritual woman in much the same way.
The movie isn’t always subtle in showing the range of ways Didier and Elise seek to believe. Indeed, Maybelle, in her wild ponytails and miniature cowboy boots can be seen as a too obvious sign of the couple’s particular combination of elements, and the tragedy that ultimately lies therein. The Broken Circle Breakdown keeps all possibilities open and available to us, remind us that we are a fearful and superstitious lot, and we cannot help but find potential meanings in inert things. Such things enable us to function in our daily lives, providing and representing our afflictions, miseries, and pleasures, as we rely on one set of symbols or other to guide us through what we otherwise cannot possibly understand.