With Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium vies for first Oscar

Belgium has never won an Academy Award for best foreign film, and despite tough competition, the team behind the poignant nominee Broken Circle Breakdown are hoping this is the country's year.

A handout movie still of The Broken Circle Breakdown. Thomas Dhanens
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John-Thor Dahlburg

When the Belgian film producer Dirk Impens lost out in the Oscars 21 years ago, he remembers swearing to himself never to put on a tuxedo again unless he had another shot at the golden statuette.

This Sunday, he’ll be wearing that tux.

The small European country of Belgium, birthplace of Audrey Hepburn and Jean-Claude Van Damme, has never won a foreign film Oscar. This year, it has a nominee in The Broken Circle Breakdown, a heartstring-tugging drama with a bluegrass soundtrack about a man and woman who fall in love and must confront tragedy when their daughter develops cancer.

For Impens, just being in the running again is proof that this nation’s Dutch-language cinema industry has become an international player. Two years ago, another Belgian movie shot in Dutch, “Bullhead” was an Oscar finalist as well, but lost out to an Iranian film.

“We have the strong conviction that Flemish (Dutch-language) Belgian filmmakers over the past 10 years have been making so much progress, such great films,” said Impens. If talent, effort and a solid connection with the home audience are sufficient to guarantee winning the most prestigious prize in filmdom, “we feel like we deserve it”.

The director, Felix Van Groeningen, is proud of the movie he made and the fact it’s become an Oscar contender. But he’s also proud of what other contemporary Flemish filmmakers have achieved.

"Bullhead was a big success and was nominated, building our confidence," Van Groeningen said. "It also launched careers. It's so fantastic to see that we can make these kinds of movies. Maybe we didn't believe in ourselves five years ago."

Critics have said a fine musical score and powerful performances, including Nell Cattrysee in the role of 6-year-old Maybelle, hold The Broken Circle Breakdown together and keep audiences engaged.

Beyond the intimate portrait it paints of the male banjo player and female tattoo artist who meet and fall in love, and of their relationship with the child they have together, the film asks bigger questions, including whether the human spirit triumphs over death.

In the run-up to the Oscars, the 111-minute drama has won numerous critical and audience awards, including best actress and screenplay at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, best foreign language film from the Washington, D C Area Critics Association and “most beautiful screen kiss” in a Belgian movie website’s online poll.

But the Belgians who made the film realise it is up against stiff competition, including the 2014 Golden Globe winner The Great Beauty from Italy and Denmark's The Hunt, whose male lead, former Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen, was honored with the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.

“We know the other films have been winning lots of competitions,” Impens said. “We’re the underdogs, plain and simple.”

This year, a rule change has enabled all of the almost 5,800 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to vote on foreign-film entries, the producer said, so the old ways of trying to improve a movie’s chances may no longer work.

That’s why Impens, Van Groeningen and a small entourage have been in Los Angeles since February 4, trying to get as many of the people whose opinions count to view it as they can, the producer said.

To generate buzz, “first, you have to be out here”, Impens said. “The second thing is, organized screenings. We organize lots.”

*Associated Press