It isn’t often that the lyrics from a covey of songs can provide the solid architecture for a full-length feature that isn’t just an excuse to sing those tunes (hello there, Mary Lou—cross reference below). But just four lines from the film’s opening foray into banjo-rich, fiddle-infused bluegrass deftly sets up the drama to come:
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, Lord, by and by
There's a better home a-waiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky
Didier Bontinck is the lead singer and banjoist of this toe tappin’ ensemble. If actor Johan Heldenbergh seems to have special insights into this science-rooted, music loving character it’s because he co-wrote the play of the same name (along with Mieke Dobbels; the material was adapted for the screen by director Felix van Groeningen—last seen in these pages with the ever-zany The Misfortunates—cross-reference below—and Carl Joos with an assist on the screenplay by Charlotte Vandermeersch).
The superbly crafted non-linear storyline (giving viewers a bit of homework from time to time) centres on Elise. Not since Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man has a body covered with tattoos played such an integral part of the narrative. Mieke Dobbels is completely convincing as the tattoo artist who drops into Didier’s life expecting the bearded, America-admiring beau (with a curious resemblance to Kris Kristofferson) to be a patron of a local bar only to discover him on stage singing and picking up a storm. It’s love at first song.
They are quick to consummate their heady relationship and set up house in Didier’s trailer in the country (the animal-filled “estate” also sports a house but “fixer upper” would be an understatement) outside of Ghent. With a formidable voice of her own and a body that turns heads, Elise is soon belting out the charts beside her man.
Yet even before all of those puzzle pieces are turned over and locked into place, viewers understand that the couple has a precocious little girl who is very, very ill. (Nell Cattrysse is a wonder playing Maybelle, whether giggling with joy as she gets her parents out of bed far earlier than they’d like or stoically going through chemo and stem cell treatments that help a bit, but—ultimately—never work.)
The death of a child is all parents’ worst nightmare; an only child leaves an even wider emptiness and void: How can Mother’s Day ever be celebrated again? And as happens at virtually every key point in the film, music helps buoy everyone’s spirits on and off the screen, notably at the graveside farewell to Maybelle where the troupe gradually comes together with “Go Sleep Little Baby”; earlier “Country in my Genes” duly reinforces Didier’s naïve enchantment with the Land of the free and the home of the brave.
Using actual video footage of President George W. Bush (post 9/11 pledge to keep the free world safe; vetoing the stem cell research bill), the stage is set for Didier’s sudden private and public political rants. While these scenes are both pivotal (fuelling two husband-wife arguments: the death of a child too often invites the notion of who was to blame; completely losing it and damning both Bush and organized religion during a concert also serves the drama well but is somewhat at odds with Didier’s love of his art, desecrating the music with bitter eruptions in its sacred space) and point making, their lack of preparation (through character development) makes them somewhat out of place with the overall flow.
Much better is the theme of life after death and Didier’s metamorphosis from an essentially cruel view of the hereafter (Maybelle’s dead bird cannot possibly become a star) to a far more generous and caring attitude. Perhaps a tad too late in his realization that everyone should be allowed their own way of dealing with loss, it falls to the music one last time to work its magic—even at the worst situations—to ensure that there will be “no sad farewells.” JWR