The Broken Circle Breakdown Is Broke, All Right

There’s this book you’ve without a doubt heard of, or been made to read, or have the nerve to go around telling other people to read because it’s the most beautiful book ever written, you claim, called The Time Traveler’s Wife. It’s one of the worst books I’ve ever read. And I’ve read a lot of books. The reason it’s terrible isn’t the premise, which concerns a time-traveling guy and his lifelong relationship with a (no descriptive attributes come to mind) gal. That’s a clever premise. It worked fine for Doctor Who, why not a book? The reason it’s terrible is that it’s written with all of the depth and skill found not in the worst romance novels, but in the most pedestrian. Aside from the premise, that’s all it is: a weepy, terribly written, depthless, dull romance novel.  They even made a movie out of it. I did not see the movie.


I did see The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium’s Best Foreign Film nominee from this past year, and more than any movie, it reminded me of The Time Traveler’s Wife, but for the one thing it lacked: an interesting premise.

Broken Circle has no premise. It tells the story of this bearded Belgian guy, Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), who plays banjo in a bluegrass band, thinks the U.S is a wonderful, magical country, and lives on a farm with more cows than a banjo player has any right to live with, and this Belgiun gal, Elise (Veerle Baetens), who works in a tattoo parlor and has a lot of tattoos.

You now know exactly as much about these characters as I do. He has a beard and plays banjo, she has tattoos. Hot, right?

The story is told out of sequence. It opens with this couple at the hospital tending to their six year old daughter, who’s dying of cancer (damn it! No one told me this was a cancer baby movie!). We flash back to how the couple met. And to other scenes from their earlier life. These scenes are as generic as any soap opera. About 45 minutes in, the kid dies. And the couple? They are SAD. Really, really SAD. Why? Because that’s a totally sad thing to happen to you, even if you do play banjo in a bluegrass band, even if you do have a lot of tattoos, even if you have naked sexy sex in your outdoor farm shower.

Another day at the hospital, another argument

Another day at the hospital, another argument

The rest of the movie continues the out of sequence telling, only now there’s a race to a hospital. Elise is unconscious on a stretcher. Didier follows in his truck—and my god, he’s in quite a state! Something bad has happened! What could it be?

Don’t get excited. Everything that happens in here is the most obvious thing imaginable.

Read it.

Read it.

Let’s talk about predictability. It’s not fatal. Far from it. Which reminds me of another book, The Queen’s Gambit, by Walter Tevis (who wrote the novels on which The Hustler, The Man Who Fell To Earth, and The Color of Money are based). It’s about a young orphan girl who finds she has a talent for chess. A huge, genius talent. We follow her until she’s about 20, when she finally faces off against a certain Russian, the best chess player in the world, and—wait for it—beats him.

Nothing that happens in The Queen’s Gambit is surprising. It follows the story you know it’s going to follow without a single variation. When she wins, when she loses, when she gives up hope, when she claws her way back up. It’s all a set formula. All save one thing. One very important thing. The central character, Beth, is a unique human being. What she thinks, what she feels, how she does what she does, she does in a way unique to Beth. Unique characters make stories.

Happy times playing bluegrass

Happy times playing bluegrass

Walter Tevis knows how to tell a story, and that’s everything. The story itself? Secondary. The Queen’s Gambit is totally predictable and it could not be more gripping. You hang on every word. It’s a great book by a great writer. You should read it.

In Broken Circle, the characters are bland generalizations. The emotions they go through are not only predictable, they’re poorly told. This is death to a story. Unless you’re a fan of soap operas. Soap operas traffic in exactly this kind of thing for a reason, which is that for some people, the grand emotions are all they want. A hot couple falls in love! She gets pregnant–oh no! He’s angry! But then he’s super happy! Their daughter is so very, very magical and beautiful. Buy why is she tired all the time? Cancer? Doh! She dies. The relationship falls to pieces. Egads! Arguments! Incriminations! On-the-nose bluegrass song lyrics! She leaves him. He begs for her to return. He flips out on stage! She OD’s on pills! A rush to the hospital–but too late. She dies. And the band plays on. That no care is given to characterization is beside the point. It’s the bland predictability of the emotional highs and lows that soap fans desire. Go figure. If this is you, you might like Broken Circle. (And, um, sorry I just told you everything that happens.)

"No, honey, dead birds don't turn into stars. They're garbage. Let's throw it away now."

“No, honey, dead birds don’t turn into stars. They’re garbage. Let’s throw it away now.”

But wait, there’s more! A religious thread is woven through the movie, however briefly and haphazardly. Didier is a believer’s caricature of an atheist, angry and confused and incapable of saying anything to his daughter about a dead bird aside from, “It’s dirty. Put it on the ash heap.” Elise has faith, though she never talks about it. Plus every now and then George W. Bush appears on TV doing his monkey-act, and at one point on TV we see the 9/11 attacks. Which has what to do with the movie? Fuck if I know. I can’t say what any of the religious elements have to do with anything. This is not a well told story.

I’d say more, but why bother? It’s the kind of movie where five minutes in you get that sinking feeling you’ve been duped into watching a turd, and fifteen minutes in you’re certain. You are watching a turd. Turds don’t improve. They are turds to the end.

If you’re not going to watch a movie, I highly recommend choosing The Broken Circle Breakdown.

3 responses on “The Broken Circle Breakdown Is Broke, All Right

    • I know. When do we start seeing the good movies again? Oh, right. We’re going to Noah tonight. That can’t miss.

      • I’d heard that Broken Circle was good, but…

        Next month’s NYFCC screening is Locke, the Tom Hardy one. That looks good. And Under the Skin. Looking forward to that.

        I have no idea what to expect from Noah. Except that it will be fun to write about.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

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