In bluegrass music, a “breakdown” is a raucous instrumental tune played at breakneck speed. They’re usually pretty fun.
Outside of bluegrass, “breakdowns” take on a decidedly different meaning, none of which are very enjoyable.
Viewers get to experience both definitions in the Belgian film “Broken Circle Breakdown,” playing this week at the West Virginia International Food and Film Festival.
Didier is a bearded former punk rocker turned banjo player. He’s in love with America and, more particularly, American roots music.
He begins a hot-and-heavy romance with Elise, a blonde tattooed beauty with a wild streak.
Didier teaches Elise to love bluegrass, extolling the purity of acoustic music. She, meanwhile, steals his truck and has a red, white and blue steer skull painted on the hood.
They conceive a daughter, Maybelle, named for the guitar-picking matriarch of the Carter Family.
All is bliss, for a while. Didier remodels a home for his new family and Elise begins singing with Didier’s bluegrass band, which begins to score bigger and bigger gigs . . . but then Maybelle gets cancer.
The rest of the film follows the couple as they grapple with their daughter’s illness.
The plot does not progress in a typical chronological fashion, however.
Instead, director Felix van Groeningen tells the story in bursts, flashing back and forth in time to show different parts of Didier and Elise history.
That leaves some of the most basic facts about their relationship a mystery until almost the end of the film.
The unconventional approach is meant to keep viewers engaged — you never know what will happen next — and also brings levity to some of the most depressing scenes, since Groeningen often flashes away from those dark moments to a happier time in the couple’s life together.
Didier’s bluegrass band serves as the tragedy’s Greek chorus, punctuating important scenes with songs by country and bluegrass artists like Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt and Dan Tyminski, along with traditional songs like “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby,” “Wayfaring Stranger” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”
Honestly, the music is the best part of this movie. The soundtrack is impressively solid, and is made even more impressive when you realize each of the songs were performed by the film’s actors.
(Remember, George Clooney didn’t do his own vocals in “O Brother Where Art Thou.”)
If there’s any justice in the world, this film will make the Belgian bluegrass scene as popular as “O Brother” made American old-timey music back in 2000.
“Broken Circle Breakdown” is not without its flaws, however.
The back-and-forth storytelling format can be distracting. The film jumps so abruptly from joy to sorrow that it can leave viewers with whiplash.
The film’s third act also is a bit disjointed.
As the couple strains under the loss of their daughter, Didier and Elise suddenly develop some very self-destructive tendencies.
It’s understandable the characters would go a little crazy after Maybelle’s death. The word “breakdown” is right there in the title, after all.
But the way Didier and Elise break down are completely out of context for the characters who, up until this point, have been happy-go-lucky lovers.
You could, well, the characters probably had mental health or substance abuse problems in the past. But there’s no evidence for that in the film, so the audience is just left shocked.
Those issues notwithstanding, “Broken Circle Breakdown” is a solid film that probably will do very well in the coming awards season.
Lots of writers have described the film as the movie version of a tear-jerker bluegrass song, but I’m not sure that’s right.
There are plenty of tragic bluegrass songs, of course, but the story lines usually unfold in a very straightforward way.
“Unbroken Circle Breakdown” shifts back and forth in time and place, teetering from happy moments to utter, heartbreaking despair.
To me, that sounds more like a really good bluegrass album.
Broken Circle Breakdown plays this Friday at 8:30 p.m. at the LaBelle Theatre in South Charleston, as part of the West Virginia International Food and Film Festival.
Tickets are $8 for adults and $5 for students.
For more information, visit www.wviff.org.