If you took the movies Blue Valentine and Once and combined them – you’d have this movie. It’s the dark companion piece to Once. We see a woman fall for a guy whose songs she enjoys, and soon starts performing alongside him. Who knew Belgium had such a bustling bluegrass scene?
Two things that won me over early on in this movie were great songs (always important, but more so in a movie that deals with a band), and the initial courtship. So many films have courtships that you don’t buy or just aren’t interesting. We see them in bed cuddling, and she seems genuinely interested in why he played the banjo over other instruments. And we enjoy hearing his answer.
Just as Blue Valentine did with their narrative, we see the current story mixed with the courtship. This means painful elements of their relationship surface as they deal with their young daughters cancer treatments, edited with scenes of their first nights together (whether that’s on stage or in bed).
Director Felix Van Groeningen co-wrote this with Heldenbergh, and it first ran as a play. They cast Veerle Baetens as the love interest. Since she studied musical theatre at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Brussels, she handles her duets wonderfully. Seeing them on stage was reminiscent, but better, than Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line.
Here’s the story: It’s the late 1990s, and Didier (Heldenbergh) meets a tattoo artist named Elise (Baetens). She soon becomes pregnant, and in one of the rare missteps in the movie, they have a rather cliché scene. She comes home looking sad, while he’s thinking they might have a nooner. She says she’s pregnant, and he screams and shouts about not wanting a baby. He peels out of there in his truck, but soon returns with supplies and friends – in preparation of fixing up the house for the baby. Awwww.
Maybelle is played by a talented young actress named Nell Cattrysse, and she’s almost always shown in the hospital having chemo and various stem cell treatments. We watch as the couples relationship flies off the rails, but it’s one of those rare times we can understand why it’s going down this path.
I’ve always hated the phrase “everyone grieves differently,” mostly because it’s often applied to some guy who killed his wife, and on trial they bring up the fact that he was at Hooter’s the next day partying with waitresses. The defendant’s lawyer appears on talk shows telling us we should discount that because “everyone grieves differently.”
When you have a sick child, it’s a perfect time to apply the cliché. For example, it makes perfect sense that Elise wants to slap Didier for implying there’s no God, when it might be comforting for their daughter to hear about life after death.
The various clips shown of what is happening in America don’t seem forced, and help you get oriented as to what year you’re watching things unfold. We see footage of the 9/11 attacks. We also see George W. Bush talking about stem cell research. That leads to Didier yelling at the TV in a very powerful moment. Although when he rants about stem cell research, and whether or not there’s a heaven, from the stage – it doesn’t work quite as well. Yet every time you think the movie might lose its way, it’s as if the songs help glue the picture together. And how can you not adore a bunch of Belgian bluegrass singers that look like the cast of Duck Dynasty, serenading a 7-year-old girl upon her return home, with a wonderful rendition of The Lion Sleeps Tonight?
Songs are used to lighten as well as convey the excitement of a new relationship. You watch as they playfully banter on stage, and you want to get up and dance in the theatre with them.
Bjorn Eriksson deserves a lot of credit for composing many of the bluegrass songs written for the film, and also creating the score. You’ll also hear a few traditional pieces, as well as some Springsteen, Lovett, and Townes Van Zandt.
Watching this movie is like a punch to the gut, but it’s a poignant picture. Everything is so wonderfully arranged, and the emotional roller coaster ride is worth taking.
The final shot is the best I’ve seen in a film all year.
It was submitted for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and it just might make my best of the year list.
It’s playing at the KenCinema on Adams Avenue, but might only be there a week.
This gets 4 stars out of 5.