Felix Van Groeningen
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Tales of toddlers dying on film is generally not my genre du jour, but when you present the material in musical form, it’s difficult to resist.

Don’t expect wet-eyed characters to break into song in the middle of an E.R. Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen works hard to preserve the realism and lack of sentimentality inherent in playwright and star Johan Heldenbergh’s tale of a bluegrass singer and his tattooed cowgirl dealing with the loss of a child.

The Broken Circle Breakdown ***

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Given the film’s decidedly downbeat subject matter, I’m delighted to report that its creator is anything but gloomy. Belgium’s official submission for this year’s foreign-language Oscar opens Friday at Landmark’s Ken Cinema.

Scott Marks: What is the first film that your parents took you to see in a theater and when was the first time you remember watching a movie and thinking, I’d like to do that for a living?

Felix Van Groeningen (after several “Uhhs” and “umms”): I only mention Hector, which is a Belgian comedy that I must have seen a bunch of times. On the other hand, when you ask me which is the first film I saw in a cinema with my parents the movie I think about is The Never-Ending Story.

SM: Never heard of Hector. Is that a kid’s film?

FVG: It starred a very popular Flemish comedian (Urbanus) who made his first feature. I thought it was extremely funny when I was a kid. I saw that movie a million times. That was the movie that really made me want to be involved with films. I was kind of the funny guy at home, too, and I liked to make my parents laugh. I would dress up and play the little kidder. I love when kids do that, but I was really passionate about it and people were always telling me that I should be an actor. I tried to do some acting, I went to acting school, but I never really felt good whenever I was in front of people. I would be too excited and people would tell me to sit down. It made me shy and stuff. After several of these experiences I thought, okay, if I cannot not be an actor, I’ll be a director.

Veerle Baetens and Jonah Heldenbergh.

Veerle Baetens and Jonah Heldenbergh.

SM: It was as easy as that, huh?

FVG (laughing): Well...it was a long road to get to where I am now, but actually everything turned out fine. I never had any big troubles. One thing led to another. It’s weird how things can turn out. I used to play and make little things with friends and show them to other people. When I arrived in film school all of a sudden you had to light scenes correctly.

At the time I felt very uncomfortable doing that. For a year or two I felt like I didn’t have anything to say to the world. My big crisis came in film school when I had to learn that if I was going to be a director I was going to have to say something. It was at that point that I began looking differently at the world, looking at something and asking myself what I could do with it...what do I like about what I’m seeing and how can I make stories out of it?

SM: Your film made me think back to when I was three. My maternal grandmother died and I remember my mother taking me out on the porch — we couldn’t afford a ‘terranda.’

(At this point Felix bursts out laughing. See the movie, get the reference.)

SM: Anyway, she took me on the front porch, pointed at a star and said, “That’s Bubbie.” How old were you and under what circumstances were you first introduced to the concept of death?

FVG: Pretty old, I guess. The first time my parents told me that someone died I must have been eight or nine. It wasn’t someone I knew very well. But it touched my parents very deep because the guy committed suicide. They told me this and asked if I knew what it meant. I did.

“It’s okay, Felix,” my parents tome me, “because he wasn’t well.” I thought this was a strange thing to say to a kid and later asked my mom if she really thought it was okay that he committed suicide. “No,” she said, “I just didn’t want you to feel bad about it.” (Laughing.) It’s a strange concept of death they gave me.

Johan Heldenbergh.

Johan Heldenbergh.

SM: I’ve seen a few movies in my day and while watching Broken Circle Breakdown the question came to mind, Is this the first film musical to deal with childhood mortality and the subsequent grieving process?

FVG: I don’t know. I don’t watch that many musicals, so you tell me.

SM: At its core, in addition to being a melodrama — and I do not use the term disparagingly — this is also a musical.

FVG: Yeah, but in a very unusual way, I guess. One of the inspirations for Johan was All That Jazz. I saw that one, and I watched...what is the musical with all the Beatles’ songs?

SM: Not Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?

FVG: No.

SM: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Uhh…Across the Universe.

FVG: Yes! Whatever I watched, it was not what I wanted to do. It was very important that the presentation had to be realistic at the same time. What I emphasized was this band coming together and the arc of the band. It starts as a couple of guys getting together to have fun and it grows. It’s not like they do it professionally, they keep their jobs on the side, and I wanted that part to be realistic. I didn’t want the songs to appear as if they were outside their day-to-day reality.

SM: Was the music in the original play?

FVG: Yes. The play was set up as a bluegrass concert. The band was dressed in white and the audience was seated at little tables with candles. You had a band performing and between songs the character started talking about what had happened.

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