#TheBrokenCircleBreakdown – It Soars! A grand stage to film adaptation.
The weather outside was frightful… to watch a film in a comfy-cozy movie house would be delightful. Fortunately, as Awards season is upon us, at my Art House of choice, The Quad Cinema on 13th between 6th and 5th, a contender in this year’s Oscar Best Foreign Film category was playing. “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” which has to be one of the worst titles in recent history and really put me off, promised nothing, was from Belgium, in Flemish, with sub-titles. A winning combination if I ever heard one.
It is a remarkable film! Multi-layered, character driven and thoroughly absorbing. A love story to stir the blood and touch the heart. It is about family and faith and friendship and sickness and health and death and…life. It is about America …the influence …the lure …and the disappointment. I came out of the theater with a tear in my eye and that warm feeling inside, the kind you get when you’ve seen a film that is really satisfying. I rushed home and on to the Internet. Who was responsible for this very special film…? The director was #FelixVonGroeninger. The screenplay was by Felix Von Groeninger and Carl Joos. Then it jumped out at me. The film had started as a sage play written by Johan Heldenbergh who plays the character Didier in the film. It is a stunning adaptation and the original playwright, Mr. Heldenbergh, was importantly cast as the lead actor. Important too, he did not do his own adaptation. He left it to the film director and another writer experienced in film. Smart move and I’m sure he was close by and involved in all the artistic decisions.
Adaptation is tricky, a form unto itself. One enters carefully, going where angels fear to tread. In adaptation, the original material has to be broken up into its component parts and put back together to fit the new medium, in this case, film. You write for the stage by describing physical and mental energy in a prescribed space, the stage. You write film, (because a camera is always present) based on what is seen as the first consideration then what is heard. There are different responsibilities and techniques involved. The presence of the camera changes everything. A new form has to be found for the screen. You are really writing for the camera and the editor. Cut, stop the film here and pick it up here. The stage play’s form has to be changed in order to remain the same. Not a contradiction. The new form has to retain the same emotional values and strengths that made the stage play interesting but now for a film version. The camera makes all the difference. How it is used, the plan, the blueprint, the visual plotting is what writing for the screen is all about. The abstract choices of what will be seen, strung together in a specific progression creates the flow and substance of the story. It’s like poetry where the visual choreography causes the desired emotional reaction in the audience. It’s what the writer plans for. No explanation is required and none is given. What’s on the screen says it all.
“Broken Circle…,” is told in abstractions. Past and present inform the future as they do in life. We meet Didier, a wonderful rich performance by Johan Heldenbergh, a compelling actor and Elise, played by Veerle Baetens, who deservedly won the Best Actress Award at the Tribeca Festival for her performance; as he brings her to his farm for the first time. Their affair is sudden and lustful, an all out plunge, no holds barred dive into love. She moves into his heart, his home, his life. She is a little woo, faith in fairy tales and the hereafter, a spiritual fantasist. He is smart, pragmatic, a romantic atheist. A here and now, deal with it kind of guy. It’s why he loves America, the land of “can do.” Their intense love veils the cracks in their relationship as long as things are good. The sex is fierce, physical, full of pleasure and real emotion. We see it close up and personal from various angles and experience the intimacy so germane to the story. How did they do this on the stage, in the play? What created the intensity of the closeness between the lovers? Lighting and words can take you only so far. In film the use of the camera makes transitions tangible. The audience always knows where they are and are not disoriented or confused. The camera has done the work for them. Slowly the gaps are filled in.
We see how the couple meet-cute. He sees her tattoos through the window of her tattoo shop. She tries to talk him into a tattoo. What kind? Maybe something to do with Blue Grass. What’s that? There is a concert Friday night he might be there. She goes and is startled to see that he, Didier is the leader of the band, singing and playing the banjo. I was as shocked as she was. This is not the center of Alabama, USA but the outskirts of Ghent, Belgium. A genuine Blue Grass band is playing and singing in an unaffected, perfect sounding American-English, then they speak to each other in Flemish. It is a marvel of sound and substance and, above all else, the best kind of pure entertainment. The music enhances, enriches the story… propelling us on an emotional roller coaster ride. The band acts as a kind of down-home twangy Greek chorus focusing our attention with musical backup, interludes and asides. They provide a wonderful support group and extended family. Their contribution adds to the films impact.
We get it when Elise, influenced by Didier and their life together sings lead with the band. Everything is right with the world and gets even better when their love produces a delicious little daughter, Maybelle. The little girl deepens the couples’ love and their commitment to family and to each other. We see the playfulness, consideration and care they take with one another. How did they create this delightful intimacy, so necessary to the story, on the stage?
I don’t know where they found the pint-sized actress, Nell Cattrysse but she is extroadinary. Five years old when the film was shot and she’s dream casting. Her instincts are pure and a joy. We, the audience, know why it is a family love affair. It’s almost embarrassing to be the silent witness to such bliss. In small observations we watch her grow up to be a six year old, special as only little girls can be, but there are bumps on their road, flashes of illness, an ambulance screaming through the night. We are shocked when we find that Maybelle has a bad cancer. We are relieved when the little charmer seems to be recovering. She returns home and is welcomed by the band. Happiness. The cancer returns. The diagnosis is dire. There is talk of stem cells as a remote possibility but it is not hopeful. Elise and Didier are disconsolate. We feel their suffering. We see George W. Bush on TV veto stem cell research on ethical grounds. Didier is furious, slams the TV off. Sadly the precious little girl dies and the broken family and friends are left to grieve. Who can explain grief? We describe it from the outside but really don’t understand the feeling and depth, the form it takes in Elise and Didier. All the abstractions come together. We watch Didier disintegrate into rage during a performance on stage, ranting at the audience, at America’s Bush, at religion – faith all of the crutches we lean on. He rails at the world, his grief exploding. His daughter Maybelle has died. That is justification for his venom. Perhaps it is the song he and Elise have just finished singing, during which he has watched her intensely, about faith and everlasting love, “The circle will not be broken,” that pushes him over the edge.
Elise, beside herself, nearly out of her mind with grief, tries to calm him. He pulls away leaving her alone in her despair. Faith has not sustained her. Didier is gone. She is alone and desperate. The flashes we have seen of the ambulance with siren screaming in real time carries Elise to the hospital with a frantic Didier pleading with the medical team to, “not let her go.” Didier is told that Elise is brain dead from the pills and alcohol she took. He goes back to his farm and sits listless in the backyard. His dog chases chickens around the yard. He doesn’t notice. They make a racket and he stares at them intruding on his grief. He watches them and his expression changes. We see it and understand something has happened in his head. The dog and chickens are alive doing what dogs and chickens do. It is a quiet moment of realization that the camera has interpreted for us. How did they create that emotional insight on stage? They didn’t do it with a dog and chickens. How did they give us this insight? We next see Didier in Elise’s hospital room. The medical staff is there. The band stands ready with their instruments. Didier is at the top of the bed with his banjo. He bends low, whispering to Elise “if you see Maybelle tell her I love her,” kisses Elise on the forehead, straightens, nods to the doctor who turns off the infernal machines keeping Elise alive. Didier and the band play Elise out. The End. Exactly right. Life goes on and we go on with it, as best we can, and the circle will be unbroken …joyfully.
The adaptation and the film got it gloriously right. The stage play must have been an entirely different experience. I can only hope that they found a form that was equally as satisfying.
“The Broken Circle Breakdown,” joins, “American Hustle,” as my choices for best films of the year.