Dir: Felix Von Groeningen
Writer: Felix Von Groeningen
Cinematographer: Ruben Impens
by Tory Maddox
This film is a musical, and it’s much better served with this in mind. Too many reviewers took this as additive spice rather than pivotal material. The film’s soundtrack contains the answers to many of the more open ended questions, particularly what this film is about. Looking at the album cover, or primary poster, it appears as an American film about a Southern couple, containing some of America’s best bluegrass songs. Instead, it’s Belgian’s submission and Oscar Nominated Best Foreign film exploring the drop of American idealism.
Throughout the film, we flash between the good times and bads of a couple Didier (Johan Heldengberg) and Elise (Verlee Baeton) as they pursue and find success with a small bluegrass band, later having a daughter who soon dies from cancer. LA Times Kenneth Turan’s sum it up best in stating that the non-linearity focuses too much on the bad and far too little on the good, forcing us into a level of melodrama, rather than being able to appreciate the peaceful times the couple had initially and how quickly it disintegrated.
Other reviewers thought that while music is great, it covered up some of the loose plot ends. But it’s the specificity of Bluegrass music within this Belgian film that highlights what the story is essentially about; America’s fall from grace. I have a feeling there is a cultural disconnect here as between the Americanism and soundtrack, there’s also a heavy dip into politics, viewing America’s post-9/11 policies from a Belgian perspective; specifically, stem cell research and George W. Bush’s veto against its funding, that may or may not have saved their little girl.
For all the admiration the band has for America and its rich musical history, the politics of our country have not only affected their lives, but possibly the foundation of what they built their life around. There’s indubitably a disconnect here as I’m not entirely certain how Belgium’s viewed our country back, other than what’s presented in the film. It's obviously not great.
Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see one of our richest cultural contributions celebrated, and our politics criticized from an outsider's perspective. The film is based on “The Broken Circle Breakdown featuring the Cover-Ups of Alabama” (2008), which was released five years prior to the film and in the closing days of the Bush administration. I suppose it requires us to go back to that time when George W. was President and there was passionate disagreement across the seas. Didier’s militant atheism, and furious vitriol against Bush is so fierce that when he gives his monologue railing against America's shifting policies it’s delivered with such intensity that it almost seems deliberately awkward and uncomfortable. Or maybe it’s meant to be taken seriously. I suppose it all depends on where the viewer lies politically.
All politics aside, one of the final performances “If I Needed You” is absolutely beautiful, and alone worth the viewing.
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