The Broken Circle Breakdown – How Do You Deal With Tragedy?

Thoughts On: The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012)

A couple must confront their differences when their daughter is diagnosed with cancer.

The Broken Circle Breakdown

The Broken Circle Breakdown is a phenomenal film and a new personal favourite of mine. Because of its controversial subject matter and approach to themes of death, I don’t think this is a film for everyone. However, despite subjective opinion, I think its undeniable that if we compare The Broken Circle Breakdown to other recent films which struggle with similar themes, films like Manchester By The Sea, that this film arises as one of the most affecting, poignant and complex. In fact, Manchester By The Sea is weak melodrama, in my opinion, when compared to The Broken Circle Breakdown.

However, moving away from comparisons, what makes this such a visceral filmic experience is its confrontation of the everlasting human problems of death and tragedy. Using a fractured narrative structure that juxtaposes the broken pieces of a couple’s life (somewhat like Blue Valentine), The Broken Circle Breakdown explores how an atheist banjo player and a religious country singer/tattoo artist deal with their daughter’s diagnosis of cancer. The two forces that are constantly in conflict throughout this narrative come from our two main characters, a married couple, and all pertain to a question of how people are supposed to deal with existentialism, tragedy and death. In large part a materialist who, though he has dreams, is grounded in an unfantastical reality, Didier, the husband, represents a mind-set that tears off a band-aid and stares at a wound. Conversely, Elise, the wife, is a spiritual person who, though she is not traditionally devout, is the kind of person who places band-aids, tattoos, stickers and hope over wounds and waits for them to heal. Neither of these individuals fit so neatly into these categories, but with these two forces meeting in this story, there emerges a debate that is probably one of the most philosophically significant of the modern age.

This question is linked to the role of religion in society. This is, of course, a multi-faceted and complex topic, but The Broken Circle Breakdown focuses the debate on the confrontation of tragedy. And in such, this narrative asks if Elise’s personal semi-religious approach will allow her break through the tragedy of losing her daughter to cancer, and if Didier’s materialism will allow him to sustain also. With Elise eventually failing to successfully move on in life, there seems to be a critique of her spiritual approach – one that is primarily focused on her need for answers, purpose and blinders as well as her inability to accept the arbitrary darkness of life. Didier on the other hand can confront the chaos and destructive pitch of the universe, but nonetheless struggles.

The topic we then find ourselves on yet again concerns chaos, order and the human confrontation of such forces (topics we discussed with No Man’s Land and Onibaba). In such, Didier proves himself to be better equipt to confront this chaos whilst Elise is almost entirely reliant on a fabrication of reality that does not contain such darkness. The critique that this film exposits on Elise and religious thinking is then opposed to shielding one’s eyes. It’s final assertion is resultantly centred on a sustainable (meaning positive and even romantic) realist consideration of death and tragedy – as capture by Didier.

What brings all of this into a cohesive narrative, however, is not so much what separates Elise and Didier, but what binds them; a universal human need for contact and relationships. It’s then only because Elise and Didier are bound to one another (largely through music) and their child that these existential issues even begin to matter. This overwhelming sense of heart is what almost overshadows this internal conflict of the narrative, giving the theological debate reason and direction. And having established this as the crucial basis of this narrative, I’ll then turn to you. What are your thoughts on this subject? And have you seen this movie?



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