Felix Van Groeningen
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.
Broken Circle Breakdown ***
“He's a romantic atheist, she's a religious realist.” How’s that for an incentive-filled tagline? Working from a play by Johan Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels, the last thing Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen and writing partner Carl Joos wanted was to transform the story of a bluegrass singer (Johan Heldenbergh) and his excessively-inked cowgirl wife (Veerle Baetens) dealing with the loss of their child into a disease-of-the-week sudser. On the surface, it presents everything I’ve come to detest in movies — issues of childhood mortality, the subsequent grieving process, a dead animal motif, and a lengthy third act sermon, this one on the virtues of stem cell research. But when wrapped in song, sans the pretty pink bow of sentimentality, the result is a compelling, intensely moving musical melodrama that will leave you feeling encouraged, not bereaved. With Nell Cattrysse and George W. Bush as himself.
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.
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.
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?
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.
SM: This is really heavy-duty material. At any point during the creative process did you ever stop and ask yourself if there’s an audience for a film about a bluegrass singer and his tattooed cowgirl dealing with the loss of a child?
FVG: Yes, I did. I would never have come up with a story like this. I saw the play and fell for it. It took a long time to decide if I was going to do it and a lot of that had to do with the subject matter. The experience of seeing the play at some point made me decide that it was too beautiful not to do. It’s not easy, but it’s a part of life. And when I walked out of the play I didn’t feel sad. I felt relieved.
Veerle Baetens showing more ink than skin (and Max Cady).
SM: Are Veerle Baetens tattoos real?
FVG (laughing): No! Are you against tattoos?
SM: Ah, well. You know. Hey, your lead character is a tattoo-phobe. She tattoos the car, not him.
FVG (laughing): Well...
SM: Talk to me about the running bird motif.
FVG: It was a monologue that Johan cited for the audience in which Didier (Heldenbergh) explains his dilemma to the audience about not being able to help his daughter. He is an atheist who is very good at saying why he is an atheist. I love this monologue. It made the whole arc of the story come together. To put it in the movie we could not make one story of it. That’s why we have the ‘terranda.’ He doesn’t agree with building it, but eventually he finds a way to agree. Then we have the bird flying into it and later returning. I found it so beautiful that I developed it into a story line.
SM: There are a lot of people who are not going to like what this film has to say. How much flack do you expect to receive over the film’s very vocal pro-stem cell stance?
FVG: I haven’t had any negative reaction so far. This movie isn’t propaganda or anything. If anything, it’s pro showing both sides. Johan saw a similar story on TV and it made him angry enough that he wanted to do something about it. It’s a story written by a man who has real issues with something that’s going on in the world and is smart enough to think about it, talk about it, and show both sides of it.