The Broken Circle Breakdown – a review

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Felix van Groeningen’s deeply sad but realistic indictment of love, The Broken Circle Breakdown, is the beautifully painful journey of one family’s experience of tragedy and how they try to live with each other after losing everything.

Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh deliver astounding performances as Elise and Didier, the two lovers drawn together in the midst of this passionate whirlwind, as they unexpectedly welcome a new arrival to complete the perfect circle of their family. This circle is tragically broken and the breakdown that ensues is not only of their marriage but also of their respective lives.

Like Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (2010), this film shows not only the electric excitement and sexual passion that forms the embryonic stage of a love story but stays with it, continuing the journey, beyond the ‘honeymoon’ period and into the realities of two people sharing their lives and the inevitable hardships that they’ll face. And they don’t come much harder than this. As in Blue Valentine, the two leads here produce deeply human powerhouse performances ripping to the very core of what it is to be in love. And it’s love that is the centre of The Broken Circle Breakdown. Not glamourised Hollywood happy-ending love but real-life real love, the kind that can tear you apart. And that’s exactly what this film does.

The story opens with the revelation that will ultimately destroy this family but it’s this creative decision that gives the film its weight. Everything seen thereafter is tempered with the knowledge of impending trauma and tragedy, giving an authentic depth to the lives of these characters. The non-linear narrative (although not an original technique, it is expertly utilised here) isn’t the only convention of dramatic irony employed by van Groeningen. As the lives of Didier and Elise start to fall apart so the success of their bluegrass band, inversely, goes from strength to strength. It’s this absurd and cruel irony that makes their pain and loss, and indeed the film, even harder to bear. The musical performances of the band plays as the diegetic soundtrack to the film, a delightfully poignant touch, as the crisp and rasping bluegrass songs are performed by the cast members themselves.

Tattoos, in the film, serve as a wonderfully intelligent and unique metaphor for the transient nature of love. Elise is adorned with the names of former lovers (and now Didier’s too) tattooed all over her body but she covers over them with a new tattoo when that relationship ends. Something that you thought permanent turns out to be transitory. The point: as intense as a love can feel, it may be just one of several loves experienced over a lifetime.

Touching on themes far bigger than this one family’s suffering, but focusing the filmic microscope onto their lives, The Broken Circle Breakdown is a beautiful, challenging and completely heart-breaking piece of cinema. To say it’s moving doesn’t do it justice. And if you’re not moved, then consider yourself unmovable.

first published on filmjuice.com

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Leviathan – a review

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It’s rare that a trip to the cinema leaves you reeling from the impact of what’s just happened but that’s exactly the effect of Leviathan. It dropkicks the popcorn out of your hands, smashes your mobile phone to the floor and throws a bucket of ice-cold sea water all over you for good measure. This isn’t a film. It’s an experience.

The premise: a documentary following a commercial fishing vessel and her crew off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts, USA. The reality is something altogether otherworldly. This is an hour and a half of dialogue-free avant-garde filmmaking flowing seemingly without restriction as this hunk of metal rocks from port to starboard in the dark open waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.

To say it’s a silent movie would be wrong though, very wrong. After smashing you in the face for not being ready for it, Leviathan crashes into your ears with its mesmeric sound. The sea explodes, the gulls swoop and the fish die in the loud impactive soundscape created beautifully by directors, producers and editors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel.

The point-of-view moves freely between camera crew and fishermen, plunging into the water and then back out on deck again and it’s never clear exactly how or who is filming what you’re seeing. The sustained commitment to some of the shots is astounding, at times feeling endless, lulling the audience into a false sense of security, that you know what’s going on. You don’t.  This is art, moving art, and it’s relentless.

Playing with perspective, it becomes unclear, even, which way is up or down as you’re left simultaneously wanting a moment to end and also bathing in its raw wonder. Whether the film’s title refers to the vessel, the ocean or Mother Nature herself, or all of the above rolled into one, the message is potent. Despite Man’s best endeavours, we exist at the mercy of nature.

This isn’t for the faint-hearted. Not just for the fish guts and summary decapitations but because it’s a full-blooded assault on the senses. Some people become physically uncomfortable, squirming in their seats; so much does the film wash over you, coming in waves, some even fall asleep. As with all art, though, it’s entirely up to the individual how they react. My suggestion: sit back, open your eyes and ears and hold onto your seat for this is one of the most challenging and visceral cinema experiences you will have in 2013. Maybe ever.

first published on filmjuice.com

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Foxfire – a review

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Laurent Cantet’s Foxfire is a naturalistic and valiant adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel of the same name, following a gang of teenage girls living in the 1950s brought together by the abuse they’ve suffered at the hands of men. As they fight back and rebel against ‘The Man’ (the system) that collectively oppresses them, the strains and internal politics begin to take their toll on the group, leading to a life-changing final sequence of events.

Adhering to the narrative style of the book, the events and developments of the story are revealed through the popular convention of flashback, as the character Maddy, played admirably by Katie Coseni, narrates her old typewriter documented entries of Foxfire’s rebellious exploits.

Although it’s historically engaging to see not only women but teenage girls rebelling so violently in an era as draconian to the female as the 1950s, then it does feel like something is missing from this one. The period detail, the costumes, cars etc, all provide a believable setting but despite this subtle and understated aesthetic of authenticity then the meat missing from this US diner burger, is drama.

When the film jumps from flashback to present, believing that these girls are anything but teenagers proves difficult, not only because the actresses portraying them have no experience to draw on as adults but because of the very suspect wigs they are wearing. It’s a shame that this is noticeable but it is and it breaks the suspension of disbelief rather badly.

Raven Adamson, ‘Legs’ (the leader of the gang), puts in a brilliant and convincing performance as the empowered and determined young woman let down by her father and, ironically, inspired by an old religious ‘Father’ to literally live out her dreams and fight for the ideological success of Foxfire.  The relationship between her and Maddy serves as the central and most involving of the group as the lines between platonic and sexual love become blurred in moments of adolescent exuberance.

Too long at almost two and a half hours, it plays out more as a two-part TV melodrama than an epic piece of compelling cinema. When the violent and irreversible events occur they lack any real suspense and, ultimately, just don’t feel that dramatic. The fact the girls never reap their ‘Foxfire Revenge’ on the boys who apparently raped Rita doesn’t seem to align with their core values and leaves a key horrific event unpunished, diminishing your belief in their absolute resolve as radical feminist revolutionaries.

Credit to Cantet, this is an intelligent and stylistically different take on the teen movie, in no small part due to the period setting, but when the big dramatic moments seem to be one and the same as the not-so-big dramatic moments, you’re left with a movie sandwich that’s all bread, no thriller.

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