The premise of Felix Van Groeningen's drama is a familiar one; the unravelling of a relationship after a child is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

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The Broken Circle Breakdown. Picture: Supplied

Film
The Broken Circle Breakdown (MA15+)
4 stars
Johan Heldenbergh, Veerle Baetens
DIRECTOR FELIX VAN GROENINGEN
REVIEW PIER LEACH

The premise of Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen's Oscar- nominated Flemish and English- language drama is a familiar one; the unravelling of a relationship after a child is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

What distinguishes its anguished and affecting love story from recent counterparts, like the excellent 2011 French film Declaration of War, is the world of bluegrass music in which it is so persuasively immersed.

Like the Coen brothers' currently screening film Inside Llewyn Davis, and that memorable 2006 Dublin-set love story Once, it could almost be classified as a musical, with its often fully played-out songs so integral to the drama, although like both of those films The Broken Circle Breakdown is also strikingly naturalistic.

Like those films, too, it's the particular genre of music - the folk songs of the Coens' film, the busking magic of Once and here the soulful bluegrass harmonies - that is essential to the narrative.

It opens with an instantly appealing rendition of Will The Circle Be Unbroken, the early 70s bluegrass song that lends the film its slightly varied title that, in hindsight, answers the song's question.

Structured in a non-linear narrative style that weaves back and forth across the couple's relationship, it is clear from early on that a mutual love of bluegrass is what brings banjo-playing singer Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) and tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens) together. It is the cornerstone of their love and the life they build together over the years in the Flemish countryside.

Elise starts performing with Didier's band and the songs they sing together underscore the film's themes of hope, heartbreak and spiritual redemption after their beloved seven-year-old daughter Maybelle is struck down by cancer.

Based on a hit play co-written by Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels, and adapted to the screen by Carl Joos, the film tracks between the painful present and key moments from their happy relationship: Elise's surprise pregnancy in the couple's first passionate throes of love, fixing Didier's gorgeous rundown house up for the baby, and their spontaneous wedding.

There is virtually no trace of its origins in the theatre. It is a wholly cinematic experience, a beautiful film to look at, shot in warm, colour-saturated tones by cinematographer Ruben Impens.

What comes through, across its artfully edited 111-minute running time, is not just Elise and Didier's enormous love for one another and their daughter but also their diametrically opposed world views. Hints of these differences are evident from the beginning but they start to overwhelm the relationship when added to the grief over Maybelle's cancer.

Philosophically, Didier's resolute atheism and conviction that when you die, that's it, you're just dead - a view that contrasts markedly with the devotional music he loves so much - is no comfort to Elise, who is clearly grasping for meaning and solace in the idea that perhaps there is something more.

Such ideas are for the most part laced subtly through the film. Even when they are not - and there are a couple of too heavy-handed moments towards the end - the film is so suffused with joy and heartache, and its characters so beautifully developed, that they are easy to forgive.

It all comes back to the music. The final scene epitomises the film's central idea beautifully: that for pure happiness to exist so must its opposite, despair.

The Broken Circle Breakdown is a wonderful paradox: a tragedy that doesn't let you forget the joy.