There almost certainly hasn't been a more savagely dark feel-bad drama than The Broken Circle Breakdown all year, for most films in most years do not pivot on the death by cancer of a five-year-old girl. This isn't merely a thing that happens in the film; it is the thing that happens, the ominous point foreshadowed in every scene of the first half of the film and driving the drama in every scene of the second half. It is, to a profound degree, a Film About Childhood Cancer. At any rate, childhood cancer and bluegrass music.

Taking place in Belgium, predominately in 1999 and 2006, The Broken Circle Breakdown introduces us first to the older, more weary incarnations of Didier (Johan Heldenberg) and Elise (Veerle Baetans), a married pair of musicians headlining a group that plays American bluegrass for appreciative Belgian hipsters. It then skips backwards to show us their first sexual encounter, seven years prior, and from this point onward, the film's relationship to chronology is more about connecting emotional beats than providing a lucid narrative that we can easily follow from start to finish. This ends up being absolutely no problem whatsoever: the film is really quite easy to follow, partially because the actual meat of the story isn't really that complex to begin with, and partially because this more impressionistic way of ordering scenes makes sense in an intuitive way that makes the characters' emotions seem clear enough even if the specific order of scenes is a bit foggy in the first hour. This being a film about the way that people handle emotions, this approach works beautifully.

Also more intuitive than clearly laid-out and rational: the film's use of bluegrass. Which, to be honest, sets it apart from the pack a lot more than anything else does, for there have been no shortage of naturalistic and/or realist European films about people dealing with horrid tragedies in more or less destructive ways. But European films about how music can be a means of either exploring feelings or covering them up through performance? That's original on quite a different level than anything else going on in the movie. It's easily the most rewarding part of the film, for that same reason, and because of the insight into the subject littered through the script by Carl Joos, Felix Van Groeningen (who also directs), and Charlotte Vandermeersch, adapted from a play. Perhaps to counterbalance how much of it is a miserable wallow in the most painful, self-negating feelings a human can suffer through, much of the film is suffused with the exuberance and joy that comes from being a well-educated enthusiast in a niche subject: Didier's rapturous discussions of the history and meaning of bluegrass are as great an argument for how art can be an important, transformative element of human life as one can hope to encounter.

Rich stuff, vividly expressed through two sharply-drawn characters, but after a while, one begins to suspect that The Broken Circle Breakdown doesn't quite know where to stop. At 111 minutes, it's impossible to say that it isn't redundant after a while, if not indeed schematic in how it combines moments of the parents worrying and fretting over their gaunt little Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) in the present with scenes of them performing songs in the past which reflect or contrast their emotional state seven years later. It takes much less time for the film to make its point about what performing music does for the performer than the film takes in making it, and that problem only intensifies in the back half, when the conflict is squarely concerned with how marriages are effected by the death of a child, and entire five-minute scenes play out with a single emotional observation being made, like acting exercises in which each of the principals has a single goal which never changes.

Perhaps most distractingly, there's a whole thematic thread in which Didier (an atheist) and Elise (a non-specific Christian) clash in small ways over how to raise their daughter, and then in large ways over how to react to her death. That's some hefty, complicated stuff to raise in what amounts to a film's B-plot, and it tends to feel, throughout, like the part of the movie grafted in afterwards: the conversations are probing and intense, but inorganic and writerly, and this latter flaw is more pronounced than its strength, to my mind.

The only thing which tends to redeem this are the characters themselves, for though the visuals provided by Van Groeningen and cinematographer Ruben Impens are crisp and intentional, they are also largely unremarkable, and there's more of dramatic than aesthetic interest to the movie. Lucky, then, that Didier and Elise are such complex, involving people and that Heldenbergh and especially Baetans give such commanding, nuanced performances. The film covers a whole lot of ground, from shy flirtation, to giddy erotic acrobatics, to the friendly boredom of a longstanding relationship, to recrimination and anger, and every single one of these registers is expressed beautifully and simply, giving us an exceptionally well-rounded impression of who these people are in many different stages of their lives. It's built along such a massively tragic arc that it can't be said to be as universally truthful a depiction of the Life of a Relationship as something like Blue Is the Warmest Color, but at the same time, the details are so specific that it's still ends up a pretty solid work of human observation.

And that, more than the ways that the film gets bogged down by its content and arch seriousness, is what stands out to me as the lingering part of the film. The Broken Circle Breakdown is imperfect cinema, but it is a truly great depiction of people going about the business of being people in thorny, conflicting ways, and studying how much love is or isn't enough to combat tragedies and loss. It is a movie driven by ideas, and those ideas are wonderfully deep, meaningful, and unresolvable in ways the let the film stick in the mind far longer than it seems likely to in the moment of watching it.