illustration by Paul Nabuurs Didier sings songs of faith with his entire physical being, but he doesn’t always have faith.
He doesn’t believe in God, religion or the afterlife; he’s just as frustrated with evolution, angrily bemoaning how birds have not passed the danger of windows down to successive generations. He has beauty in his life, but at times it overwhelms him; its presence reminds him that life is also about its absence. Sometimes he can’t bear it. Elise, his beautiful wife, knows all this, too—but she has some faith, and puts her stall in it. Perhaps, though, the purpose of having faith is to have it tested.
When Elise tells him she is pregnant, Didier’s response is: “Maybe I don’t want that.” It’s a familiar moment, a familiar retort from the bowels of a male ego—and Didier is gone, fleeing the responsibility.
When he returns he is armed with decorating supplies and a comrade, ready to turn his dilapidated house into a family home. He has changed his mind, his initial emotion subsided, and he makes a decision: believe in something else. Let love carry you. Have some faith.
Is Didier rewarded? It’s hard to say. His faith in love is certainly tested. In The Broken Circle Breakdown, love doesn’t necessarily survive. Because sometimes, the film seems to say, it can’t.
Elise was searching for herself—for happiness, for contentment—until she found Didier, and could finally stop searching. She grows to feel safe in the life that they lead and the music that they play.
Didier, meanwhile, is besotted by American mythology, obsessed by the very concept of America. He has a pickup truck and an encyclopedic knowledge of indigenous music – particularly bluegrass. He’s got wild horses and a caravan full of cowboy paraphernalia.
When Didier and Elise are naked, or when their bluegrass band plays, or when their daughter, Maybelle, is jumping up and down on the bed, it’s perfect. It’s so utterly perfect.
Why does real life always have to get in the way?
Maybe my wife did leave me because she fell out of love, and it was that simple.
Maybe it was a mistake I’d made, something that hurt her, affected her so much that she no longer saw me as that same person she once fell in love with.
Maybe love fled in that moment, in the form of the man I was before my errors of judgment.
I wonder if we destroy others’ belief systems because of an ultimate lack of faith in our own? Surely love is too fragile a thing to survive such a war.
Elise and Didier’s marriage is not one that shrinks after the arrival of their child. It remains a passionately physical relationship, challenging the conventional wisdom that sexual chemistry necessarily dwindles after marriage and kids. It’s a love that remains potent from its first moments until their daughter’s final moments–final moments that come far too soon, when Maybelle, only six years old, loses her battle with cancer.
And then it’s gone. They know it’s gone and they know they can’t get it back because they can’t get Maybelle back. So while the film disrupts one common notion—that time and children tear down physical intimacy—it simultaneously reinforces another—that the death of a child often leads to marital separation. And it’s in this constant push pull of the familiar and the specific, the mythical and the real, that the film holds most power over me.
Yes, my situation is nearly the same as anyone else’s. Separation and divorce are not uncommon. But at the same time, my experience is utterly unique in the strange way that love—and the end of love—almost always is.
Ultimately The Broken Circle Breakdown feels like a film about belief systems, of which love is one. It highlights how we build our relationships with others through the use of abstract concepts (concepts we often need just in order to cope with life), how we imbue these relationships with more responsibility than they can take, and how we don’t know what to do when they buckle under all this weight. Didier and Elise both gloss over their pain and grief and, slowly, the (I want to…), becomes simply: fuck you.
The film places the beautiful right alongside the brutal and ultimately makes a statement about acceptance. Acceptance that your belief system is just that: your belief. Acceptance that we can’t control love any more than we can control whom we love. Acceptance that we cannot control other people, that we can only try to control ourselves. And acceptance that, as T.S. Eliot said, there is only the trying; the rest is not our business.
In the end, all of Didier’s and Elise’s belief systems betray them except for one: music. America, Love, Life and Faith all come up short, but Music remains—to heal, to comfort, to shine a light on the path toward acceptance.
The Broken Circle Breakdown is based on a play of the same name—written by Johan Heldenbergh (the actor who plays Didier) and Mieke Dobbels—and the creative team behind this adaptation plays around with time to extraordinary effect, creating jarring juxtapositions and parallels. The film plays out like memory: jumping between the good and the bad, the sexy and the shattering—everything is jumbled together.
Marcus Aurelius tells us to “limit time to the present,” but how could you not sometimes get stuck like a scratch in a vinyl groove, in an eternal moment from the past? Like the fraction of time when Maybelle was there, before that infinity when she was not. As Didier and Elise move beyond that moment, their own hope for recovery quietly fades away. Elise covers up his tattooed name on her body.
As they slip from each other for the final time, the film cuts to a scene in the hospital, before Maybelle dies. She asks her Daddy to tell her again about the stars. With an aching heart, he does. What is a star?
A sun that is a very, very long way away. And its light has to travel a long way for a long time to reach your eyes. Sometimes it’s possible that the little star has already gone out before the light reaches your eyes. So you see something that is no longer there. But that doesn’t matter, because the light from a little star like that carries on travelling, past your eyes. Further and further. So that little star will exist forever. Forever and ever and ever.
I’m proud of how I came through the end of my love, though the death in this case was merely symbolic. I still see the light shining, but I know that the source has burned out. All I can do now is marvel at the wonder and look for a new star, a new sun.
I choose to go again. I choose to accept that the next love might not last, that it might not work out. It won’t betray me because it promises me nothing. Love is not marriage. (It might be. It might not.) I will take the risk because it is too beautiful, too wondrous, and too rewarding to not go after utterly and completely. I accept my part in it.
I accept that I can’t control it.
As the tragedy of unfolded events becomes potentially too much to bear in The Broken Circle Breakdown, the band strikes up, and the pain is eased somewhat. Hope glimmers for Didier, and the music transmits that hope to all us kindred souls. For me, it’s the most moving performance of the film, alongside the somber and elegiac a capella rendition of “Go to Sleep You Little Babe” at Maybelle’s rain drenched graveside. Like every other emotional cue in the movie, the music feels truthful, vital and necessary.
I know I made big mistakes with my heart in the right place, thinking what I was doing was for us. Mistakes that ultimately might have led to our love moving beyond repair. Whatever the cause, it didn’t survive. Our marriage never reached‘til death us do part. And, since last May, some of my beliefs about love and marriage have changed. Our love lasted as long as it was meant to last.
When I look back now, I have no doubts, no anger, no remorse for what I did or didn’t do.
And now here I am, at the outset of a new and beautiful love, trying not to second-guess things. Trying not to be the person that made those past mistakes. Like Didier, as he comes to terms with all that has passed and decides to keep on playing—to strike up the band—I’ve picked up my own metaphorical banjo, and I strum again.
From the top, boys.
Neil Fox is a screenwriter, critic, and academic who lives and works by the sea in Cornwall, UK. He walks his dog, swims in the sea, drinks vats of coffee and can’t stop listening to the new Sun Kil Moon album.