It’s an uphill battle for a movie about the slow, sad demise of a family to be considered can’t-miss. Somehow filmmaker Felix Van Groeningen’s Broken Circle Breakdown manages, though, with an appealing mix of humor, pathos and, believe it or not, classic country songs.
Over the course of the movie, tattoo artist Elisa (Veerle Baetens) and her musician beau (Johan Heldenbergh) fall in love, start a family and come to learn harrowing lessons about the fragile nature of life. The film, which has picked up awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival, opens on November 1.
DuJour spoke with Baetens, an award-winning Flemish actress and musician, about Belgium’s musical theater scene, American country music and what sorts of tattoos she’d like.
Your character doesn’t have it easy. What about the role of Elise was appealing to you?
It was a play before it was a movie. My co-star Johan Heldenbergh had written it together with another actress. I went to see the play two times and was overwhelmed by the story and by the characters. At that time I was also teaching at a drama school and I took students with me to show them that this is how theater has to be, but I didn’t know they were going to make a film of it. The moment the producer asked me to audition, I was overwhelmed because I was so much in love with what I had seen in the theater.
The movie is told through a series of time shifts. What was the filming process like?
When you shoot, because of financial reasons, you don’t do it chronologically. And in this case, the editing lasted for seven months. Everything that was written in the script, it’s like it was put in a box and shuffled before the movie came out. The only linear thing in the film is that the editor had this brilliant idea to follow the musical group as it gets bigger and bigger.
You’re an accomplished musician—your band just put out a new album last year. Were you pleased to get to sing in the film?
It’s rare. For every actress who knows how to sing, and I know there are a lot of us, this would be a great opportunity. Not only that, but it’s a great way to give emotion to the character. Musical theater in Belgium, people don’t like it, so I was really glad to sing in the movie.
How does your own music differ from what Elise does, which is mostly American country standards?
To be honest, I didn’t like that genre before [the film]. I didn’t know it and wasn’t really in touch with it. But the moment I started singing it, I discovered a whole new world of great lyrics that tell a story. And it was easy: I had to play the guitar and even if you know three chords, you can jangle along. That’s a very nice thing.
Your character is a tattoo artist. Do you yourself have any?
No, I don’t. The role did allow me to think about it. And I have a very good friend who’s a bit addicted to tattoos. The only thing I can imagine tattooing on my body would be a drawing my daughter made. She’s five and these drawings are really special; they’re just the beginning of everything.
Silence plays such a big part in this movie. How was that for you as an actor?
There are a lot of scenes that are cut out. We talked a lot! There was a lot of improvisation and also silences that are meant to be. I like it more, I think in this movie, what I hear a lot of, is that the eyes tell the story. In our eyes they see so many things and I think that’s really the truth of acting. With fewer words, sometimes you can say more.
Broken Circle Breakdown opens on November 1. Watch the trailer below: