This handsome Flemmish melodrama (with added bluegrass) falls apart after during its anguished second half.
This full-bore Flemmish melodrama fuses together a cheek-clawingly depressing 'disease of the week' movie with a toe-tapping bluegrass soundtrack to present the prolonged and anguished breakdown of a pair of star-crossed lovers. She is Elise (Veerle Baetens), proprietor of a tattoo parlour who is herself inked from head to toe in symbolic rockabilly reminders of her past loves. He is Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), lead banjo and singer in a local bluegrass combo who tractor beams in Elise with his melodic tones and mighty beard.
The film opens with the shock revelation that their six-year-old daughter has developed cancer and it looks to be terminal. The narrative timeline is then smashed into shards and we oscillate between moments of pastoral bliss (open-air showers, successful gigs) and deep soap-opera desolation (their daughter's funeral).
In focusing on the lives of the lefty arts circuit, director Felix Van Groeningen offers a fresh spin on hackneyed material, and the drama initially maintains its air of rootsy credibility due to the all-or-nothing performances from Baetens and Heldenbergh. Yet, problems arise when the story appears to reach its natural conclusion at about 45 minutes in, and so we're treated to further hour of wallowing recriminations interspersed with sugar-sweet snatches of the pair's whimsical early courtship.
Aside from routinely juxtaposing moments of his actors in either high elation or utter despair, Van Groeningen unwisely decides to step back from the human drama and insert an awkward 'science vs religion' sub-theme, culminating in a cack-handed on-stage god-rant by the confused and broken Didier. Furthermore, he's earlier seen shouting at a television while watching George W Bush proudly announcing his sublimation of stem cell research in the US, accusing the Republican Comander-in-Chief of essentially contributing to the murder of his daughter.
In the meantime, Elise is left silently clutching her St Christopher hoping that her fervent religion will end up pulling her through this mess. Though Didier's booming proclamations are shot through with righteous anger, Elise doesn't really get a chance to argue her case, as if the filmmakers are all ready too far down the path to rationalism to worry about all that.
At best if feels like it's pandering to those liberals likely to be watching this type of movie, at worst it does a great emotional disservice to the film's feisty leading lady. It also comes across as the actors transforming into mouthpieces for ideas in the script rather than rounded human characters.
A big hit in its native Holland.
Great lead performances (Veerle Baetens is a star), but stratospherically depressing.
Lots of big emotions that too often feel false.