There's a moment in The Broken Circle Breakdown when Belgian bluegrass singer Didier basically explains Albert Einstein's theory of insanity: a bird crashes into the glass of the terranda he's built for his family (a combo terrace/veranda) and dies, and he wonders out loud to his wife, Elise, just how many birds have to crash into glass and die for it to be written into their genetic code that glass is deadly. The entire conversation serves to underscore these characters -- Didier, a bluegrass aficionado and rational atheist whose only romance exists in his wife, Elise, and his dreams of America, where anything is possible; and Elise, an impulsive woman of faith who lives and breathes in a world of possibility, where every tattoo on her body isn't a mistake until it is, and then she can just cover it up with something better, forever the optimist.
Belgium's entry for the 2013 foreign language Oscar will inevitably draw comparisons to Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine, and like that film it effortlessly traipses between past and present, dreamily dancing on bare feet to the songs of Didier and Elise and their charming bluegrass band. Somewhere in between their hasty barroom marriage and moving from Didier's caravan into his spacious farm house, the pair have a daughter, Sophia -- the faithful and impetuous Elise is instantly joyous about the unplanned pregnancy, while Didier is initially resistant. When terminal illness takes hold of their daughter, it takes a similar marriage of science (stem cells) and faith to combat the cancer threatening the special thing their love created. And if that marriage fails, can their marriage survive?
The Broken Circle Breakdown examines this intersection of science and faith, and not-so-subtly reflects on the effects of a post-9/11 America outside of the limited microcosm of our nation -- at one point, Didier watches President George W. Bush announce his ban on stem cell research, while it's the advanced stem cell research in Belgium that's failed his own daughter. Lives are precious everywhere, but no more so than in our own homes and backyards.
And while the film spends some time with these heavier, worldly issues (and perhaps is a little overwrought in these areas for it), it also speaks to intimate issues with alarming clarity and poignancy -- we are so, so very limited by our own beliefs. When the bird smashes into the terranda and dies, Didier can't explain to his daughter what happens to the bird next other than, "It needs to be tossed in the trash," and contemplates to Elise the various things he could have explained to Sophia -- that it went to heaven, that it was an extremist on a suicide mission. He asks how he explains what he believes, that the bird simply dies and ceases to exist, to which Elise says, "You can't say that." And he can't.
But it's those simple limitations that keep Didier and Elise from allowing themselves to be there for each other when it really counts; from seeing beyond the immediacy of their own needs and feelings and reaching into that greater love, the love that created the ultimate symbol of life's great gamble of science and faith: a child. And in some great twist of cruel irony and fate, Didier and Elise, two people who knew who they were and how much they loved each other without a child, two people who found their love only multiplied by the addition of a child, suddenly find themselves adrift when that element is subtracted from their lives.
The Broken Circle Breakdown is emotionally raw and captivating, like someone with OCD picking at the same piece of skin around their cuticle for two hours until a sudden flood of bittersweet pain unleashes itself; a pain that's been pregnant for too long. The film is shot beautifully, and again will call comparisons to the dreamy work of Cianfrance and Blue Valentine. There's an ease to the way the characters, the music, and the cinematography work together like a well-timed but homey chorus, much like the acoustic bluegrass music featured in the film.
Late in the story, when Didier finally reaches his breaking point and contemplates that too-familiar concept of some cruel deity that would find entertainment in playing games with people's lives, Elise cuts to the heart of everything -- not just this film, but fucking life: "I've always known. That it was too wonderful to be true. That it couldn't last. That life isn't like that, life isn't generous. You mustn't love someone, you mustn't become attached to someone, life begrudges you that."
These are the limitations of belief, and the way that those limitations become poisonous when left in solitude for too long. Co-dependence is uttered like such a dirty word, but people can and do complete each other and there's something to be said for those who open their hearts and allow others to fill those empty spaces, to finish their sentences and be and supplement what they lack; to sing the refrain when we simply cannot. Loss closes hearts and cauterizes them like open wounds, leaving them hard and unyielding. It's at this time that we need what we lack the most; it's at this time that Didier and Elise need each other most.
"Will the circle be unbroken?" Didier sings, and we reflect back on the cycle of pain and suffering, of insanity -- of the birds smashing into the glass over and over, unable to learn that the glass will kill them. Albert Einstein said that insanity is repeating the same behavior over and over and expecting different results. As humans, we continue to fall in love though our hearts are always broken. We continue to have children though some of them die. These are acts where faith and science intersect; this is marriage.
The Broken Circle Breakdown is now playing in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, D.C., and Philadelphia. More information on upcoming release dates and cities can be found at the official site.