The stage can be a magical and cathartic place where artists express themselves and connect with an audience, but sometimes it’s difficult to leave your real life off stage to become the performer your audience came to see. Many films have tackled this subject, whether through fictional narratives of made up bands or by recounting the lives of famous artists, but The Broken Circle Breakdown takes things one step further to showcase the music just as much as those performing it.
Living in Belgium, Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and Elise (Veerle Baetens) do not seem like two people who would be into American bluegrass music, but when Didier invites Elise to come check out a local bluegrass band with him, and Elise realizes Didier is in the band, she falls in love with more than just the music. The bluegrass music of the The Broken Circle Breakdown is never restricted to the stage, with the music bleeding into Didier and Elise’s life as much as their life bleeds into their performances on stage. The music doesn’t merely accent a scene or help to drive the emotion, it becomes a part of Didier and Elise and follows them through the highs and lows of their relationship.Didier explains that bluegrass is American country music in its purest form and that purity and honesty is what attracts Didier and Elise to the sound, but it’s also what keeps them from being able to simply perform it without letting their own, personal truths come through. Bluegrass can be fun and lively, but it can also be mournful and sad, and Didier and Elise prove the genre’s diversity as their performances on stage mirror the ups and downs their life. Just as the music in Walk the Line reflected the ups and downs of John (Joaquin Phoenix) and June (Reese Witherspoon) Cash’s relationship, The Broken Circle Breakdown shows how Didier and Elise’s performances became a direct reflection of their life off stage, and that truth always shines through in their music.
The Broken Circle Breakdown uses its musical influence in a powerful way because it does not simply rely on a song’s lyrics to say what Didier and Elise cannot express, it allows the actors to use the music as a gateway to express their emotions in all their complicated glory. Regardless of the lyrics they may be singing, their joy or sadness bleed into the performance.
During one dark moment, Elise sings a solo and Baetens delivers a breathtaking performance that embodies all the pain her character is currently in. The stripped-down nature of bluegrass allows the music to simply pour out of her.
Music is also more than just a shared enjoyment. As an extension of who Elise and Didier are, Didier tries to use the music and their time together on stage to find his way back to Elise as much as she uses the music to push Didier further away.
Neither Didier nor Elise try to pitch the idea of performing songs that reflect how they feel to their fellow bandmates, they try to stick to the songs they normally perform to put on a good show, but it becomes clear that the bluegrass music that brought them together may not be enough to keep them from drifting apart. Music can be a dynamic part of a film, but The Broken Circle Breakdown allows it to become a presence all its own as the raw purity of bluegrass keeps Didier and Elise from being able to hide from the truth of their relationship.
People turn to music for an escape and a sense of release and it is compelling to see a film use music as a force constantly swirling around two characters rather than something turned to in order to heighten the emotion. Didier and Elise face some heartbreaking moments throughout The Broken Circle Breakdown, but it is inspiring to watch the music offer them each a way to face their emotions head on. It may not allow them a place to ignore the difficulties life throws at them, but that’s what makes bluegrass music so pure and what makes its presence throughout The Broken Circle Breakdown so compelling.