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The Broken Circle Breakdown is part romance, part tragedy

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This week's film is a bit of a tonal shiftfrom the stuff I've been reviewing over the last couple of weeks. I've been spoiled on horror spoofs about mutant monster Santa Clauses and dark comedies featuring nigh-invincible cats; I really wasn't mentally or emotionally prepared for the Movie ReviewermobileTM to make a hard left on the corner of Whimsy and Humor and go full-tilt down Heartrending Tragedy Boulevard, but here we go. What a way to start the New Year.

The Broken Circle Breakdown is the latest from Belgian director Felix Van Groeningen. Based on the play of the less theater-marquee friendly name The Broken Circle Breakdown Featuring the Coverups of Alabama by Johan Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels, this Academy Award-nominated film and Tribeca Film Festival darling is absolutely terrible. It's an unrelenting, gut-wrenchingly horrible story, but a masterfully told story nonetheless.

Didier Bontinck (Heldenbergh) is a cowboy in every sense of the word. He drives a big pickup truck. He wears a Toby Keith-esque cowboy hat and boots as part of his daily ensemble. He lives in a trailer on his secluded ranch, which is populated by all manner of barnyard critters, (though he never seems to do any actual ranching). He plays in a bluegrass band. Lastly, and totally in keeping with the romanticized image of the "lonesome cowboy," Didier's a confirmed bachelor. In short, he's living the American (Belgian?) dream.

When Didier meets comely tattoo artist Elise Vandevelde (Veerle Baetens), sparks fly, and it's not too long before Didier is sharing his dream with a loving wife and a young daughter named Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse). The only problem with a beautiful dream like this is that Didier eventually has to wake up. The rude awakening comes when little Maybelle is diagnosed with cancer.

What follows is a fascinating study on the different ways that people react to the inevitable pains and losses in life. Why does Maybelle have cancer? Is it Elise's fault? Is it Didier's? Maybelle's? Is there a reason for Maybelle's illness; some vital part in a grand cosmic scheme that would give meaning to something so awful? Or do tragedies like these just befall people at random with no higher purpose than to affirm that life can be fickle and cruel, it will inevitably end, and not necessarily according to our schedules? And, if these questions must remain unanswered, (and despite the combined efforts of our philosophers, scholars and theologians since the dawn of human existence, no definitive answers appear forthcoming), how do we cope with not knowing?

The Broken Circle Breakdown tackles a very true-to-life story in a very true-to-life way, largely shying away from any of the cinematic tropes so common to this kind of tale, save for a few fleeting moments which serve as welcome respites from the film's uncompromising realism. This is a film that totally immerses you in its story from the very beginning and leaves you absolutely emotionally drained by the final curtain.

Happy New Year.

THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN, 2 and 6:30 p.m., The Grand Cinema, 606 S. Fawcett Ave., Tacoma, $4.50-$9, 253.593.4474

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