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A grief anticipated

18 October 2013

Stephen Brown sees a film, released today, with a tragic theme


THE death of a child can make or break a marriage on the basis, I suppose, that if something as momentous as this doesn't tear you apart, it makes you stronger.

The Broken Circle Breakdown (Cert. 15), dealing as it does with such a circumstance, could be described as a latter-day Greek tragedy - except that Sophocles et al. are hardly a barrel of laughs, whereas this film's moments of hilarity make the downward turn only that much more devastating.

Perhaps comparison to a Passion play is nearer the mark, taking in, as it does, life, death, and the whole darn thing in between. It starts with six-year-old Maybelle, dying of cancer in Ghent, Belgium, before flashing back to when her parents Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) met. He is into bluegrass music. Elise works in a tattoo parlour. She is mesmerised by his performance; he by her beauty.

So far, it would be what Hollywood categorises as a meet-cute movie if we weren't already privy to the calamitous outcome awaiting them. In the mean time, the couple fall in love, have Maybelle, get married, and make themselves a home. Elise joins Didier's band. Yet, during all this, we are in the know that a sword of Damocles hangs over them.

The plaintive laments of their Appalachian music are like a Greek chorus, foretelling the protagonists' doom. Similarly, the screen is forever being scored by tyre tracks, railway lines, vehicles of every kind, hurtling from here to there and possibly getting nowhere in life. Are any of these journeys really necessary, one may well ask.

Elise, despite the comfort of family and friends, cannot be reconciled. She seeks some supernatural understanding of what has happened, which clashes with Didier's scepticism. Later, his grief finds voice in an explosive rant against the kind of God who has already been presented to us inthe form of televised excerpts ofGeorge W. Bush promoting a near-fundamentalist Christianity.

This typifies a film in which omniscient spectators see more of the game than the participants. The editing makes sure of that, as it makes great leaps backwards and forwards in time as well as inserting occasionally puzzling clips. Elise's tattoos, some of which she has tried to remove, become symbols of how the full tale of Christ's affliction continues in human flesh. Blake's lines "Joy and woe are woven fine, A clothing for the soul divine" hover over the whole piece.

Despite the absence of a pat-meet-cute ending, the film wrings many emotions out of us on its journey towards something potentially redemptive.

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