Director Felix Van Groeningen on ‘The Broken Circle Breakdown”s Tale of Love, Loss, and Bluegrass

In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, “For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof,the work for which all other work is preparation.” But if there is one challenge more painstaking and emotionally ravaging than navigating your way through love, it’s in dealing with the harrowing sorrow of death and the grief that follows behind. And when in the throws of mourning, we crawl into our selves in order to cope, pushing out rationality, and disguising our hearts to the point where even those we love the most appear as mere strangers who could never understand the way you feel.

“You really cannot share [grief],” says director Felix Van Groeningen. “It’s so personal and so hard to deal with that no one can help you with it.” And with his latest film, the absolutely devastating and remarkably wonderful The Broken Circle Breakdown, he explores the complex ways in which we deal with loss, how grief can fracture even the most solid foundations, and the way in which love may never be enough. Telling the story of Elise (Veerle Baetens) a beautiful and full-of-life tattoo artist and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) a strong and passionate blue grass musician, The Broken Circle Breakdown follows their relationship from the instantaneous bond and firey romance of love’s first flames, to the disintegration of that connection and the despair that ravages their lives.

Adapted from the theatre play of the same title written by Heldenbergh, the film comes alive through its musical interludes that play like cue cards for our emotions, guiding us further into the story and allowing us to take a step back from the intensity of the narrative and slip into the visceral feeling living between the characters. And although the original stage play was a bare bones and simple expression construction—with only two characters narrating their tale between musical numbers—van Groeningen has managed to convey that same rawness and immediacy onto the screen. By telling the tragic and novel-esque drama with a non-linear structure, we’re forced to dive head first into the potent heart of the film, while Elise and Didier’s most sorrowful and blissful moments are presented side by side, giving even more weight to each unfolding moment. There’s a natural beauty and honestness to the film and in the performances of its brilliant cast that invites you in gently, entrances you, and then holds you in its tight grasp—digging itself down deep under your skin and into your veins.

Having already achieved a massive success overseas, The Broken Circle Breakdown has been selected as Belgium’s Academy Award Entry for Best Foreign Film just ahead of its stateside theatrical release this weekend. And to celebrate it’s New York debut, yesterday I sat down with Van Groeningen to discuss the strong response he had upon seeing the stage play for the first time, the fears and pleasures of adaptation, and the ways in which he cope with grief.

Well, I truly loved the film. To be honest, after the first twenty minutes or so I did not stop crying. And it wasn’t as if every moment was begging for my tears, but it really just sunk you into their lives so deeply. I’m wondering how you reacted the first time you saw the play performed live and what struck you about it? 
What happened to you, happened to me when I saw the theatre play—I just stated crying after twenty minutes and couldn’t stop. What I found so incredible, was that you have this very, very small story of two people and it becomes bigger and bigger and bigger. It starts down here and it reaches out to the sky. So that’s what really struck me, how you could do this. I thought it was genius; he made a great, great play. But it was different than the movie. The play was very sober and just had a band and two actors who were also singing. And in between they started telling their story to the audience so it was extremely simple—but extremely effective at the same time. I thought, well maybe we could turn this into a movie, but I didn’t know if it was worth it. I didn’t see how it would work because it was so simple. But I had it in my hands for a couple weeks, and then I rejected it, but then kept coming back to it. So I thought, okay, let’s just try it. Then I reread the text and already saw a lot of images that I knew at that time I just really had to show. We could not do it the same way, we really had to show what happened to this couple. And then how that was all going to work, we’d see that later.

Were you concerned at all about adapting something that hit you so strongly or that bringing it off the stage would lose some of the emotional weight?
That’s always the biggest worry when you adapt, but it’s also why you do it. So I’m not afraid any more to adapt because of good experiences. If you work hard enough and long enough and turn the thing upside down a million times, you will find a way. It happened twice—in this film and my previous film I had good experiences. But the hard thing is that there is no manual, you have to find your own logic and try a lot of bad ideas and write them out to discover what’s not working.

Did bringing the film to the screen allow you to explore certain elements or themes deeper more deeply?
I guess that what struck me when we had the first treatment of the script, was that when you had all the effects, it didn’t feel as joyful as the theatre play. So that was the biggest worry, like we have to make this beautiful and feel the love between this couple and what makes them special. You felt the energy on stage, but this was something I explored more. Like the image of Elise and Didier on the poster and how they surprise one another, those are things that we added that were really fun to come up with.

The hardest thing to learn in life is that love doesn’t always conquer everything and we see that here so strongly in the way grief drives apart their word. Were you looking to really get to the heart of the myriad ways we deal with grief and how that can fracture your life?
That’s exactly the heart of what the theatre play was and what the movie is. So there you touch the heart. And then there’s the climax with the song “If I Needed You” where they literally ask themselves if the other one would be there if they really needed them and the answer is no. It’s sad, but it’s no. It’s not that way for everybody, but the big difficulty with grief is that you cannot share it. You really cannot share it, it’s so personal and so hard to deal with that no one can help you with it.

Through these characters you really look at the dichotomy between turning inward to a more spiritual place of faith and outward reaction which is blame and placing that one things like science and religion. Do you see yourself falling on one end of the spectrum more? 
I’m really in the middle but I understand both sides. What struck me with this story, is that in a way they’re like archetypes. He’s a man and he’s strong and he’s passionate and he’s earthy and full of fire and also very rational, but when he cannot cope with his grief he becomes extremely irrational and he becomes almost religious in his atheism.

In a way that someone is fanatical about religion, he was certainly was fanatical in his atheism.
Yeah, so he becomes this atheist priest at the end because he’s betrayed by science and sees only the bad things about religion. And Elise is really on the other end, where she needs to believe in something more. He takes her down and that’s what drives her away from him.

Can you talk a little bit about the non-linear way in which you told the story? Was that how you wrote and shot the film or did much of that come alive in the editing? 
The script was not chronological, but in a completely different way than it ended up in the movie. So it was always the idea, and I knew we had to do it this way. But when we stuck to the script in the editing, it didn’t work the way I wanted it or had foreseen it, so at some point we just forgot about the script and figured out a new way to put it together. And what we realized, is that the feeling stayed there and all the explanation we took away, but all the feelings were even stronger. So that was a great experience and it’s really part of my filmmaking now. During writing I always try to go in detail and think, okay this is going to work —but in editing I realized we could make it better. I don’t feel sad about it, I’ve just understood it’s part of my filmmaking and I cannot come up with everything up front, it needs to grow organically. I need to put in a lot of stuff and then little by little take little things away to see this film become something of its own.

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And telling the story in this way allows you to really get right into the emotional core of everything, and then you slowly reel it back. You see their daughter in the hospital, and yet its on the same scale as their first night in bed together. Was that contrast of happiness and sorrow important to you? 
Especially that, yes. Because in those moments when you’re in extreme grief, you long to go back to before bad things happened. When you’re in that emotional state you confuse things, and luck and unhappiness are very close to each other. And that’s the weird thing with this movie that I experienced with myself watching it, you see the happy moments and they make you cry even more. Because you know what’s eventually happens. Yes, and what they long for, what everyone longs for. But sometimes life gets in the way. That’s the tough thing about life.

How did you seek to find the delicate balance between a musical and a raw and honest deconstruction of a love story. Did you always know how you wanted the music to factor in and work like an interlude that allows you to break from the narrative but while maintaining all the emotion? 
Exactly. Well, what you described is exactly what it had to do because I saw it working in the theatre play, and that was the most important functionality of the music. But what we had to change during writing the screenplay, is that we knew we couldn’t just stop the storytelling to show the songs, so we used it more to help the narrative. We see Elise becoming part of the band in one song, or we see the daughter growing up during another song, etc. Once or twice we just put the song in for emotion to take you out of the storytelling because you know what’s going to come, and that’s where it works so brilliantly because you really get hit by the emotion and see what happens after. And what I realized when the play was finished, when I saw it the first time, is that what the songs talk about is what’s happening to the characters as well. So in that way it’s like a musical, but the movie is nothing like a musical.

Have you always had in interest in bluegrass music or was this something new for you? 
I didn’t know the music before I saw the play, so it was something I discovered myself.

Did you connect to the character’s pastiche fascination and idealization of America? 
Well, there was something that Didier talks about—we shot it, but we cut it—he says as a kid he dreamt of America because of TV and movies and had this idealist view of America, and then when he first visited he was disappointed a little bit. And I’ve had the same thing I guess; I really idealized America and my first big trip was to California when I was eighteen, and I was a little disappointed too. But I kept coming back and I really like it here. I mean, I can relate to that but not in the same way they do—I don’t drive a pick-up.

Was there anything you looked to for inspiration when making the film—even in a more abstract sense of influence? 
The inspirations were mostly in real life that came to me or I encountered. The theatre play had something very cool about it. And then I went to see bluegrass concerts in Belgium and Europe, and what I saw was not very cool. It has a nerdy side—to say it gently. So I had a take on that very realistically. But when people first read the script, they thought it should be even more Americana and I didn’t want to make a joke out of it, I wanted it to feel real and authentic. So I encountered Johan, and he’s a guy who has been playing bluegrass music since he was sixteen years old. He’s just a Belgian guy, but when you see him, he’s really one of the coolest guys I know, and he also plays in a rock band and he has a beautiful girlfriend and together they sing duets. So encountering those people and seeing the way they live, it was really inspirational—like, okay, we can make this work and make this cool. And then I met this tattoo artist while I was doing research and the way she talked about her tattoos and the way she lived really was a big inspiration for Elise. So in terms of how they lived and how they looked, I really took it from real life and not other films or art.

And the band from the film has been touring since the film opened in Belgium? 
Yes, so the movie came out in Belgium a while ago and they did a tour right after the release. That was a crazy big success, every show was sold out, and then the CD has been on the charts #1 for 20 weeks or so. And now next year they’re playing another tour and everything is already sold out, it’s crazy.

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