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‘The Broken Circle Breakdown’: Strung together by Belgian bluegrass

Tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens) becomes wife bluegrass musician Didier (Johan Heidenbergh) singer his b“The Broken Circle Breakdown.”  |

Tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens) becomes the wife of bluegrass musician Didier (Johan Heidenbergh) and the singer in his band in “The Broken Circle Breakdown.” | TRIBECA FILM

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Didier Johan Heidenbergh

Elise Veerle Baetens

Maybelle Neil Cattrysse

Tribeca Film presents a film directed by Felix Van Groeningen and written by Van Groeningen, Carl Joos and Charlotte Vandermeersch. In Dutch with English subtitles. Running time: 111 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Music Box.

Updated: February 25, 2014 6:08AM

There’s enough heartbreak in “The Broken Circle Breakdown” to inspire any number of high-lonesome country songs, and that’s precisely what happens in this unlikely but potent blend of true love, tragic illness and bluegrass music — Belgian-style.

Fortunately, there’s also plenty of joy to offset the sorrow, another defining characteristic of bluegrass, no matter where it takes root.

“Broken Circle,” nominated for this year’s foreign language film Oscar, opens with two scenes that set the tone for everything that follows: A Belgian bluegrass band performing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and parents Didier and Elise (Johan Heidenbergh and Veerle Baetens) caring for their cancer-stricken young daughter in a children’s hospital.

Melodrama alert? Well, yes and no. “Broken Circle” definitely goes to some emotionally wrenching places (devastating might be a better word), but it manages to sidestep excessive sentimentality, largely thanks to its unusual plot structure.

Director Felix Van Groeningen takes a story that might be too much to bear in a straightforward, linear narrative and explodes it, then artfully reassembles the pieces by jumping back and forth in time during the sorely tested marriage of bluegrass musician Didier and tattoo artist Elise — who eventually becomes a mother and the singer in his band.

It doesn’t hurt that the performances by Heidenbergh, who co-wrote and starred in the original play, and Baetens, even more impressive than her assortment of temporary tattoos, are so strong. Or that the film’s subtly moody cinematography provides such a treat for the eyes. But it’s the music that really brings “Broken Circle” to life, an excellent collection of old-timey country classics and originals that reconnects the broken bits of the story and resonates with its deepest emotions.

Lots of fancy pickin’, in other words, but not a lot of grinnin’.

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