Belgium’s official entry to the Best Foreign Film category in Oscars early next year is pitched somewhere between James Mangold’s Walk The Line and Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine – a tragic, weepy melodrama that features a relationship breakdown charted through a songbook that evokes the olden American bluegrass. In fact, Felix Van Groeningen’s strategic positioning of the film’s leads recalls the dynamics between Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, pertinently referencing the country-blues music duo and their tumultuous relationship as a couple. It’s a film so smitten with American music and environs that if you’d suspend the Flemish language in any moment through the film, you’d be forgiven to think this was all set in folk-thumping Kentucky country. Here, Ghent is set as the beautiful backdrop to which the courtship of Johan Heldenbergh’s Deidre, an epically bearded, banjo-strumming bohemian, and Veerle Baetens’ Elise, a profusely tattooed local beauty, surf the majestic high-points and descend into tragic lows. The low point being catalysed by the death of a young daughter afflicted with cancer.
It’s easy to cauterise Van Groenigen for his emotional manipulation, sneaking in a disease movie into the proceedings, but the film is at its strongest during the aftermath of its plot contrivance. Occasionally, the director seems genuinely concerned in exploring how parents are left to deal with grief and self-blame when a child is snatched away prematurely. Cue powerful arguments, heart-wrenching breakdowns and mournful stares out of the window. The latter half of the film gains extra dramatic weight that watching Heldenbergh and Baeten either engaging in furious spats or crooning anguished songs feel unexpectedly affecting. Thanks mostly to both actors’ committed performances, especially Baeten who endows her character’s tattoos with layers of depth, the lives of these damaged people feel lived-in and convincing.
My biggest lament on the film, however, lies on its fragmented narrative. In the post-Annie Hall relationship dramas, it’s becoming rote for storytelling to resort to non-linear editing just because the events involve a disjointed memory breakdown, as if the entire movie is trying to grasp where it all went wrong. We already have Woody Allen doing it plenty of times. We already have  Days of Summer, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Blue Valentine perfecting the technique. Are we in need another variation? It’s something we’re left to ponder about. Rather than using it as a creative arsenal for some philosophical ruminations, Van Groeningen uses this anti-structural trajectory as a platform for showing off some technical adroitness, as blatantly and unsubtly as he handles his metaphors for death and afterlife, and as forcibly as he pummels through science vs religion debates by throwing out didactic, misanthropic speeches and George Bush on the telly. What he’s somehow forgotten that despite his characters’ deeply tragic and complex situation, the films wallows in its own self-conscious existence. Less is often more, and it’s never easy to sympathise with excess.
DIRECTOR: Felix Van Groeningen | CAST: Johan Heldenbergh, Veerle Baetens, Nell Cattrysse | SCREENPLAY: Johan Heldenbergh, Felix Van Groeningen | DISTRIBUTOR: Studiocanal | RUNNING-TIME: 111 mins | GENRE: Drama | COUNTRY: Belgium *DVD is out in UK stores on 25 November, courtesy of Studiocanal.