Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Broken Circle Breakdown

(Belgium, Netherlands, 2012)

When you think of great bluegrass music, the first thing that springs into your mind will obviously be … Belgium. Right? Okay, me neither. But in this movie, filmed entirely in Ghent, Belgium, and in the Flemish language (I guess; it seems there are many dialects of Dutch and Flemish in different regions of those tiny countries), you will hear some of the finest pickin’ and harmonizin’ you will ever encounter.

It was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film last week, but didn’t win. The winner had better be real good to be better than this one. It tells the story of two people, a banjo picker in a bluegrass band, and a tattoo artist. It is told in time-jumbled style. We don’t see them meet until halfway through the film. And I’d better issue a


… though I think it will be obvious very soon that their precious six-year-old daughter dies of cancer at about the halfway point. This is hard, hard, hard to watch. I could barely see the screen for the tears in my eyes. The band stands around the open grave and sings “Go to Sleep You Little Baby,” which I had first heard in O Brother Where Art Thou.

Go to sleep you little baby
Go to sleep you little baby
Your momma gone away and your daddy’s gone to stay
Didn’t leave nobody but the baby

Totally fucking destroyed me. This is the way the band deals with death, through their music. Later, they play a wildly up-temp instrumental at a deathbed. I can’t think of a better way to give someone a send-off.

She learns to play guitar and becomes the lead singer. And this woman, Veerle Baetens, is good. She is both a singer and an actress. And what really blows me away is that when she and her husband, Johan Heldenbergh, start singing a bluegrass lyric, they sound like they were born and raised in West Virginia, like they had coal dust deeply ingrained in their skin.

Like I said, it bounces around in the story. And what comes after their daughter’s death is not pretty. Many couple just can never deal with it. She needs the consolation of thinking that a crow that visits their house might contain the spirit of their daughter. He is an angry atheist, who shouts into the face of all the false gods, and also at George W. Bush, who announces his near-genocidal policy of no stem-cell research shortly after the death of little Maybelle. Stem cells, if we had worked harder at it, might have saved her. Fucking murdering prick, is Mr. Bush. This is one of the finest films of the year. If it had been in English, it might have been on the final Oscar ballot for Best Picture.