Felix Van Groeningen enjoys the ride to possible Oscar nomination with “The Broken Circle Breakdown”

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We are still close to four months away from the 86th Academy Awards on March 2nd but for 76 different countries, January 16, 2014 is a bigger day. Those 76 countries will find out which final five countries will be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 86th annual Oscar ceremony.  

The most prolific foreign language film from last year, Michael Haneke’s, Austrian feature Amour, won the Oscar, but this year is looking like a more competitive race with no clear favorite emerging. There are a few that have been mentioned as favorites: Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster from Hong Kong; Haifaa al-Mansour Wadjda from Saudi Arabia (a first time Saudi Arabia has ever submitted a film directed by a woman); Ashgar Farhadi’s (who won the Oscar two years ago for A Separation) upcoming Iranian film, The Past; Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty from Italy. Surprisingly, Abdellatif Kechiche’s, Blue is the Warmest Color did not meet the release date eligibility requirements, so France submitted Gilles Bourdos’ Renoir, which came and went in the Twin Cities theaters earlier this fall.

Another one of those potential five spots for foreign language films could go to the Belgium film, The Broken Circle Breakdown, directed by Felix Van Groeningen, whose fourth feature opened to a solid weekend at the Lagoon theater. It will be playing at the Lagoon over the Thanksgiving holiday after originally being scheduled to play one week. 

The Broken Circle Breakdown stars Johan Heidenbergh as Didier, a bluegrass banjo musician, and rising star Veerie Baetens as Elise, owner of a tattoo shop in a little Belgium town. By chance, the two meet and fall in love immediately and have a daughter Maybelle. Shortly after Maybelle is born, she becomes very sick which puts a strain on Didier and Elise’s relationship who continue to play bluegrass music together. The narrative unfolds in a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards to articulate the delicate relationship.

A week before the Twin Cities opening, I spoke to Van Groeningen by phone, whose skill with the English language surprised me. When I mentioned it to him, he laughed saying it is improving everyday. We talked about bringing the bluegrass music alive to his film, what it’s like to be working with friends, and the feeling of Belgium picking his film to represent the country for the Oscars.

“Well, I think they made the right choice,” says Van Groeningen as he laughs. “I’m very proud to be Belgium and I think the pressure is doable to handle and the film has a proven record of being a great people’s and audience choice.”

The Broken Circle Breakdown opened in Belgium over a year ago but made its biggest splash at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival where Van Groeningen won the Panorama Audience Award and Label Europa Cinemas (or, best European Film). The film found more success at the Tribeca Film Festival in April winning Best Actress (Baetens) and Best Screenplay (Van Groeningen and co-writer Carl Joos). Shortly after the festival, Tribeca Films picked up the film for U.S. Distribution and has been receiving raves reviews since its national release date on November 1.

Van Groeningen, who originally wanted to be an actor, said he settled on being a director at the Royal Academy of Art and Film in Ghent. “I was too timid and shy to be an actor, so I focused on being a director.” He also said The Broken Circle Breakdown was his biggest challenge as a director too. “I knew Johan and when I saw the play, I asked him to help bring the film to the screen and I wanted to work on the treatment. We had to add layers into the feature from the transition and creative this cinematic experience. We also had to recreate a different medium of a play into a film.”

When we started to talk about the music in the film, Van Groeningen was very eager to talk about the process of bringing the music to the screen. “As I was working on the script, the actors and musicians were working with the music supervisor six months ahead of time.“ He acknowledged that this process was also different than anything he had dealt with before, saying “we had to narrow the soundtrack down so we could get fourteen songs into the film. Since the release of the album, we’ve sold close to 70,000 copies on iTunes, and who knows how many elsewhere.”

While the music may serve as a secondary character in the film, the performances are striking and what definitely stand out in the film—especially, Baetens turn as Elise. “When we saw Veerie [audition], she brought up an emotional darkness that I found fascinating and she was a very strong woman, and I think Johan was scared of her too, but he knew she would bring a big impact to the performance,” said Van Groeningen. 

Van Groeningen knows the film may not make the final Oscar cut, but he is still excited with the prospect. “People have really opened up about this film and they have been very generous, vulnerable, joyful in reacting to it. It has been a really exciting and I’m just enjoying the ride.”