Breaking through

Felix Van Groeningen on The Broken Circle Breakdown.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Johan Heldenbergh as Didier with Veerle Baetens as Elise in The Broken Circle Breakdown
Johan Heldenbergh as Didier with Veerle Baetens as Elise in The Broken Circle Breakdown

Paper Magazine with Sarah Sophie Flicker, Arden Wohl, Dustin Yellin, Alexander Gilkes, and Misha Nonoo hosted an advance screening earlier this week at the Tribeca Film Center for Felix Van Groeningen's The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium's submission for the 2014 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Awards.

I met with Felix Van Groeningen at the Tribeca Grill Loft after party to discuss the evolution from stage play by Kris Kristofferson look-alike Johan Heldenbergh to film and how Anton Corbijn's Control on Joy Division and James Mangold's Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line with Joaquin Phoenix were inspiration but not influence.

Singer / songwriter Sophie Auster, daughter of  Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster.
Singer / songwriter Sophie Auster, daughter of Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Broken Circle Breakdown won the Panorama Audience Award at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival, Best Screenplay for a narrative feature and Best Actress in a narrative feature (Veerle Baetens) at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Did your film begin with the music?

Felix Van Groeningen: It's based on a theater play, actually. That was written and directed by Johan [Heldenbergh, co-written by Mieke Dobbels] who is the lead [Didier] in the movie. Johan is someone I've known for a while and who had played in my previous movie. So I went to see the theater play. I knew nothing about it, only that there was bluegrass music. And it blew me away. It was very simple and extremely effective. The story touched me but I didn't see cinema.

AKT: The story of the dying child is not based on biographical material, I hope?

FVG: It isn't. The remarkable thing about Johan is, the things that he makes he does it because he needs to express something about it. It's very concrete. He saw [George W] Bush stopping stem-cell funding in a news item in 2006 and he got very angry about it.

Upcoming 2014 Vegan Shoe designer for Cri de Coeur Arden Wohl
Upcoming 2014 Vegan Shoe designer for Cri de Coeur Arden Wohl Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: The clip you show in your film? Was this the nucleus of his play?

FVG: Yes. At the same time he discovered bluegrass music. And he put the two together. He was angry at Bush, not the fact that he did it, but that he did it for religious reasons.

AKT: He reminds me a bit of Kris Kristofferson in this role. Were you thinking of specific movies that had an impact on your style of filming?

FVG: We watched Walk The Line (2005) again. Other music movies like the movie Control (2007). I watched films with a lot of music, but I don't think that they really influenced me. What's so particular is that it wasn't a biopic, it wasn't a musical. I don't know, it's something in between where the music does work very emotionally but on the other hand it has to be realistic within what's happening. I've never seen a movie where the music was this emotional.

AKT: On the other hand you have the visuals. At times it looked as though the film itself was bleeding. Did you use filters?

FVG: Bleeding? I heard that the screening wasn't exactly what it's supposed to be. So I'm not sure that's what I intended.

AKT: I see. It fit to great effect - you should look into it. Does Elise (Veerle Baetens) have the bird tattoo on her neck from the beginning? I only noticed it when she is watching the real bird at her window.

FVG: The tattoos were changing but she has the bird in the beginning, if I remember correctly.

Kris Dierckx (Diplomatic Representative of Flanders), Felix Van Groeningen, Mieke Renders (Flanders House NYC)
Kris Dierckx (Diplomatic Representative of Flanders), Felix Van Groeningen, Mieke Renders (Flanders House NYC) Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Was the bird symbolism part of the play already?

FVG: The theatre play was actually really simple. They had a bluegrass band dressed in white and they did a bluegrass concert. In between the songs, the two singers, one male, one female, started talking to the audience about what had happened to them, that they lost a kid. It was very direct, to the audience. The story of the bird was just one monologue. I thought that story was beautiful. I loved that story and in the movie it seems like a whole thread throughout.

AKT: Does the actress Veerle Baetens have any tattoos herself? Was she also in the play?

FVG: No tattoos and she was not in the play. I changed the actors.

AKT: My favorite scene in the movie is when Didier, seen from below, is moving the stars for his daughter. It's a unique shot that works from so many angles. The man who places himself above god and calls himself ape, his wife and child alive in the 'glass coffin'. How did you come up with this scene?

Actress and fashion designer Tara Subkoff
Actress and fashion designer Tara Subkoff Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

FVG: Sometimes things have to happen. It wasn't in the script like that. We were in that hospital room and we wanted to do something with stars. And all of a sudden we said okay, what if we put the stars on top of that glass cage. It just happened.

In 2012, the Flemish drama Bullhead (Rundskop) directed by Michaël R. Roskam, starring Matthias Schoenaerts was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

The Broken Circle Breakdown opens in New York on November 1 and in Los Angeles on November 8.

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