It's a good thing Belgian-made The Broken Circle Breakdown became one of five nominees last week for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, because it otherwise might not have earned the stateside attention it deserves. The film begins with a 6-year-old girl fighting cancer before using flashback to tell a raw and emotional tale of her parents' tumultuous romance, family strife and the unlikely success of their American-style bluegrass band in Belgium. It has to be called melodrama, a term known to send even the most open-minded cinephiles running for cover. Belgian director Felix van Groeningen has expressed his own misgivings about tackling the treacherous genre, but his film possesses the kind of substance that makes labels — and plot summaries — irrelevant.
The Broken Circle Breakdown has a lot on its mind. The tragedy at the story's center may elicit some tears, but it's mostly an excuse to explore existential dilemmas and the universal mysteries of love. The flashback-based narrative structure gives way to something more fluid as van Groeningen moves back and forth in time, juxtaposing key scenes from different eras to great effect. Much like Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis, the film relies on the honesty and authenticity of American roots music, using it as both a storytelling device and a wellspring of emotion. The film hits a few false notes along the way and nearly falls apart thanks to a misplaced onstage political rant but manages to stay true to its own eccentric vision.