Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Coming full circle: The Broken Circle Breakdown
(Felix Van Groeningen, 2012)

Unfairly overshadowed by Paolo Sorrentino's La Grande Bellezza in the foreign-language film category at the 2014 Oscars, this remarkable movie from Belgium reminds us that heavy subjects don't necessarily make heavy movies. There are many ways a filmmaker can engage us emotionally without appealing to our most basic Pavlovian instincts.

Spoilers abound! In fact, this entry is intended more as an analysis than a review of the film.

The story is set in Ghent, Belgium and develops over a period of about eight years. Elise is a tattoo artist with deep religious beliefs, Didier a musician in a bluegrass band, and a nonbeliever. Although he fiercely defends his atheism, Didier has developed a religion of his own, infatuated as he is with the myth of America, the "best place on earth" and the country where "you can start all over again". They fall in love, Elise joins the band as a singer and they start to perform in the local scene to increasing acclaim. At first they live in a caravan parked in front of a rural shack, enjoying the freedom of the country and somewhat reenacting the lives of the settlers celebrated by bluegrass music. But when Maybelle is born, the family moves to the newly-restored farm house which Didier has even provided with a "terranda", a glass room halfway between a terrace and a veranda. Happy years follow, until a bolt from the blue diverts the natural course of life: Maybelle is diagnosed with a form of cancer from which she will not recover  that's where the life circle of the title interrupts. Her death precipitates the family, or what is left of it, into an abyss of desperation culminating with Elise's suicide.

This is, more or less, a linear synopsis of the film. Putting yourself in the filmmaker's shoes, how would you tell such a story? In other words: how would you build the movie's plot? The most obvious choice might be to start from the protagonists' first encounter, then follow the chronological succession of events: marriage, pregnancy, birth, illness, and the tragic conclusion. Alternatively you could focus on the couple's grief, occasionally flashing back to the happy years. Director Felix Van Groeningen takes a different path: he shuffles the chronological order of events, showing us from the very beginning both the harsh reality of the disease's progression and the happiest moments of Elise and Didier's relationship.

The first scene features Didier playing the Christian song "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?" on stage with his band, the bright colors and the performers' energy setting a light, joyful mood. Then we get the movie's title, and the following scene shows a nurse handling a syringe in an aseptic hospital room. The abrupt juxtaposition of two situations so far apart is thematic: in the course of the film, the old-as-time problem of the compatibility between the existence of God and evil will be repeatedly called into question, and both Elise's faith and Didier's skepticism will be put to a hard test.

The clash in tone between the first two scenes also prefigures the overall structure of the movie. We can divide the story into two segments: the first one, about 50 minutes long, covers the couple's romance, and Maybelle's illness and premature death; the second segment lasts approximately 61 minutes and concentrates on the couple's grief, at times returning to their first year of relationship. Each segment, in turn, can be divided into various sequences that identify three main narrative lines. It's useful to label them with letters so that we can easily follow at which points temporal shifts occur:

   (A) Elise and Didier's romance and "marriage"; Maybelle's birth and first six years of life
   (B) Maybelle's illness, therapy and death; couple's first days of grief
   (C) Elise's attempted suicide; euthanasia.
Segment 1 displays an alternation of sequences A and B only, according to an ABAB scheme. Segment 2, which begins short after Maybelle's passing, also introduces sequences of type C and follows a more complicated CBAB pattern. The graph and the legend below show the complete stream of 19 sequences; the y-axis represents the duration in minutes of a sequence (the higher the column, the longer the sequence).

   (A1) (Opening credits.) On their first date, Didier plays a banjo serenade for Elise
   (B1) Maybelle is hospitalized for the first time
   (A2) Elise and Didier's "wild life"
   (B2) Maybelle's health worsens
   (A3) Elise and Didier perform their first concert together; Elise's first three months of pregnancy
   (B3) Bald-headed because of the chemotherapy, Maybelle returns back home
   (A4) Flashback to the night Maybelle was likely conceived; Elise's last months of pregnancy; New Year's Eve 2003
   (B4) Chemotherapy fails, stem-cell therapy starts
   (A5) Maybelle's sixth birthday
   (B5) Maybelle's death and funeral
   (C1) On the way to the hospital again: Elise is in a coma. Dissolve into the next shot (see frame atop the page)
   (B6) Couple's first fights; Elise falls into depression
   (A6) "Meet-cute"
   (B7) Elise and Didier try to begin again
   (C2) Elise is hospitalized after attempted suicide
  (B8) Elise seems to be recovering from depression; Didier's resentment toward America; Elise leaves Didier
   (A7) Marriage
  (B9) Elise's new name; Didier's public ranting against religion; definitive split-up; Elise's attempted suicide; a series of flashback provides a link to the final sequence
   (C3) Elise's last breaths of life; euthanasia. (End credits.)

It might seem reductive to treat a film like a set of blocks, but I think that putting on paper what the filmmaker does on screen in this case can tell us something not only about the way the film is organized, but also about the "philosophy" lying behind it. First of all, the film's flow of information is extremely dynamic: the average sequence duration is about 5.8 minutes (but only 4.6 if we exclude the two final and longest sequences), which means that we are forced to redirect our attention to different narrative lines rather often considering that the movie's entire duration is approximately 111 minutes.

Moreover, although A, B and C are consecutive chapters of a same story, the film achieves what we could call a multi-threaded suspense. In fact, even though we know from B-sequences that Maybelle will eventually become ill, we are still curious to learn where it all began, and how her parents became aware of the first symptoms. And while we follow the couple's first fights after Maybelle's death, we also want to know more about how their relationship was born, a situation reminiscent of Harold Pinter's theatrical play Betrayal.

Another consequence of splitting up and rearranging story time is that intense dramatic moments, which are intrinsic to a story involving illness and death, are often interspersed with life-affirming scenes. This alternation of tones prevents the movie from being a progression of events toward an ineluctable ending, like in our chronologically ordered option: the filmmaker apparently doesn't want to indulge neither in sorrow nor in joy for too long. The film's ending seems to confirm this: in the movie's crucial last shot we learn from a tattoo on Elise's skin that she still loves Didier, but interestingly we don't get a scene where Didier discovers the tattoo. Another director would have exploited the dramatic force of this final revelation more extensively; here, instead, the final extreme close-up of the tattoo is perhaps addressed more to the viewer than to the character of Didier, and functions as a sort of epitaph for the story. We might even have doubts about whether Didier really saw it. [1]

The movie's overall pattern has a strong thematic relevance as well. Narrative lines A and B proceed in parallel up to sequence A5, which provides a "suture" to the earlier sequence B1 (see the double-slash highlighting in the graph): in fact, Maybelle is hospitalized at the age of six, which is exactly the point where sequence A5 ends. Moreover, sequences B9 and C3 provide a link between lines B and C by means of a series of flashbacks happening in Elise's mind (highlighted with a cross in the graph). Even the first and the last sequences, both having Didier perform a country song dedicated to Elise, provide a conceptual (not chronological) link between C and A. The movie portrays a family's disintegration under the blows of an unfathomable force, and yet its quasi-circular structure seems an effort to restore what God, nature or destiny has destroyed, providing a constructive answer to the question "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?"

Pattern regularity, however, doesn't prevent blocks from flourishing in unexpected directions. In this respect, it's worth examining an excerpt of sequence B4 more in detail. Its main theme is always Maybelle's deteriorating health, but within itself it displays a rather complex pattern made up of three micro-sequences, again unfolding in parallel:

   (a) Maybelle's doctor recommends a new therapy based on stem-cell transplantation.
   (b) Elise and Didier visit Maybelle in the hospital's pressurized chamber.
   (c) Elise is back home from work; Didier tells her about the episode of the dead bird.

To complicate things, micro-sequence c is further subdivided in two gradually overlapping parts:

   (c1) Elise tenderly caresses Maybelle sleeping on the couch.
   (c2) Didier tells Elise about the "difficult afternoon".

In the scene leading up to micro-sequence a, Maybelle has found a dead bird in the terranda, and she is presumably confronted with the idea that she herself will have to die. Didier tries to comfort her, but she runs away crying. At this point, a sound bridge provides a link to the beginning of micro-sequence a, where Maybelle's doctor is explaining to her parents how stem-cell therapy works.

A cut to the pressurized room leads into micro-sequence b:

Now sequence c1 is introduced. Elise's car is visible through a window of the living room, where Didier is reading:

As Elise gets out of the car, the sound track anticipates the later conversation with Didier, while the images delay that moment:

At this point we get an alternation of images from c2 and c1, respectively in and out of sync with Didier's voice. Note also the false continuity between the last two shots, whose chronological order is reversed:

Two more sound bridges bring us back to Maybelle's hospital room first, where her parents jokingly pretend to be going away...

...then again in the terranda (c2):

One last sound bridge (I swear!) and we return to the doctor's office (a):

What I find interesting about the sequence I've just described is that it reproduces, in little, the macro-structure of the whole film, although it follows a less regular scheme. Actually, more instances of this Chinese boxes-pattern could be isolated. So the director doesn't content himself with mixing up things at a macro-level, he also lets the film ramify, fractal-like, making the viewing even more absorbing.

One might wonder whether the intricacy of the plot works against intelligibility. However convoluted the structure might appear, though, the good news is that temporal shifts are more difficult to describe than to follow. As it often happens, many cues help us to identify which narrative line we're in. For example, B-sequences generally unfolds in the hospital, and when this is not the case, a foulard on Maybelle's head immediately signals that she has already undergone chemo. Thanks to such strategies, the film needs to recur to temporal indications only sporadically. There's only one caption saying "7 years previously" at the end of sequence B1, while other hints are embedded in the story world (the 9/11 attacks shown on tv, the New Year's Eve 2003 celebration, and so on).

Another issue the filmmaker must have faced is the excessive fragmentation due to multi-threaded structure. The problem, I think, has been successfully addressed employing a variety of techniques. I've already mentioned false continuity, which establishes a correlation between two moments that, in principle, aren't related at all. Besides, within a sequence flashbacks and flashforwards can add evocative details referencing earlier or later sequences. Transitions between scenes happen seamlessly, often by means of elaborate sound bridges, as we have seen, or ingenious conceptual links. My favorite cut, an example of what we could call "false conceptual continuity", occurs after Maybelle has undergone the first cycle of therapy. Elise asks her daughter to close her eyes and imagine something nice: immediately after, a fast-moving lateral tracking shot shows a horse running in a meadow, only to reveal the side view mirror of Didier's car on the left side of the frame.

Sometimes, relations between temporally distant events are evocated with purely pictorial analogies. A constellation of plastic stars may acquire new significance when compared to a heap of pills floating before Elise's face.

For all these reasons, The Broken Circle Breakdown is probably the most engaging "new" movie I've seen this year so far. In this entry I've concentrated mostly on structure, but there would also be plenty to say about the importance of certain symbols, or the movie's provocative messages in relation to faith, politics, and bioethics. But that's another post.

1. ^ Just out of curiosity: as it often happens with foreign movies distributed in Italy, the movie's Italian title is itself a major spoiler: Alabama Monroe - Una storia d'amore.

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