A breakdown is the point of a song when the various instruments of the band step forward and have their say before the next chorus; in life terms, it’s that moment when things irrevocably fall apart. Both types are present and accounted for in this Belgian melodrama, one tuned to the key of keenly appropriated Americana. You can see our country’s subcultural influence inked all over the rockabilly-tattooed Elise (Veerle Baetens) as much as you can hear it in the bluegrass band led by bearded banjo-picker Didier (Johan Heldenbergh). They meet cute, she checks out his group and eventually proves to be a sweet-voiced singer with a June Carter–ish lilt. (Release this soundtrack, stat!) Love, marriage and a child follow, as do tragedy and the sense that music can help a person through the grieving process—but only so much.
Director Felix Van Groeningen starts the couple’s story near their rock bottom, chronologically flipping between various stages of the duo’s relationship and punctuating everything with renditions of old country standards. The performances are highlights, though they almost seem superfluous to the story, and there’s the nagging feeling that these gorgeous songs are simply being used in the name of quirk and/or easy emotional shorthands. (Just because the film features a genuinely moving version of “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby” doesn’t make its usage any less manipulative.) Both Baetens and Heldenbergh do their best to sell the story’s ups and downs even when the narrative gets bogged down with science-versus-religion ranting, yet you’re still left with a movie a little too reliant on playing clawhammer on your heartstrings.
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