The Broken Circle Breakdown tells the story of love at first sight between Elise and Didier, who share an enthusiasm for the United States of America, and the cowboy culture and country-western music thereof, despite the fact that they live in Belgium, and English is not even their primary language. Didier even owns a pickup truck and has a farmhand-type job. Elise, introduced to American bluegrass music by Didier, ends up singing in his band. Though Elise, a scantily-clad tattoo artist who herself has multiple tattoos, may not be anyone’s notion of a “good” girl (some of the tats are mementos of former boyfriends), she is a crucifix-wearing religious believer, while Didier is a dedicated atheist. They seemingly make a tacit pact to agree to disagree, or, perhaps, even successfully ignore this issue, and things seem to go well for a few years forward, while they concentrate on such practical matters as conceiving their little girl, whom they name Maybelle, and acquiring a proper house for her to grow up in, as Didier had previously lived in a claustrophobia-inducing caravan. Sexual compatibility (the movie contains a number of scenes in which their sexual relationship is portrayed) has a way of making tolerable a multitude of sins. Didier and Elise seem to love each other, and are seen making an effort to become loving and responsible parents to their daughter.
Unfortunately when Maybelle is six years old she becomes seriously ill with cancer. She endures hospitalization and radiation treatment while her parents argue about her prospects. (The fact that they are able to focus on their daughter’s physical health and her prospects for recovery, mean that they are beneficiaries of socialized medicine when they can afford this even though their jobs put them on the lower income tier.)
At one point during Maybelle’s hospitalization, Elise gives Maybelle the ornate silver crucifix on the chain around her neck, claiming that it had been passed down from her mother and her mother’s mother. In an expression of (perhaps unrealistic) optimism, while Didier looks on and smoulders silently, Elise tells Maybelle that she is to pass it on to her daughter after she becomes a mother. It is unclear how much formal religious instruction, if any, Maybelle has received, but Elise tells her to hang onto the crucifix when she feels frightened or in pain.
Remission and a return home for Maybelle lead to an initial confrontation of religious values when Maybelle wants to believe in a soul and an afterlife and some sort of respect for the dead when a bird flies into a glassed-in addition to the house (the veranda/ “terraranda” built by Didier) while Didier insists on an unceremonious disposal for the bird’s body in the dustbin and an equally unceremonious lack of an afterlife for the bird, frightening and saddening the child.
Unfortunately, the untimely death of an innocent “birdie” is not the worst thing fate has in store for Maybelle and her parents. The cancer returns in short order, and Maybelle returns to the hospital, for a stem cell treatment, which the doctor informs them can give her another chance, but cannot confer miracles (the science hasn’t advanced that far, he says).
In spite of having available a treatment which is not available in the USA, Maybelle dies, and her parents are left with their existential quarrels.
Initially, Elise seems to be coping with it best, especially since she is the one who repaints the Maybelle’s old room and converts it to other uses. There is some merit in the idea that religion fulfills a psychological need, and is a coping mechanism when people are faced with depression-inducing situations of this kind. Though Didier said as much to Elise about the spiritual and gospel mountain music he played and listened to when they were courting and he was discussing American country music with her, he seems to have forgotten this fact, and chooses the period after Maybelle’s death, when they are both feeling vulnerable and angry to verbally abuse her and disrespect her beliefs.
Didier rages at Elise as well as at religion, both organized and informal. He also yells at a television broadcast of former US president George W. Bush publicly proclaiming his purported religious and moral sensibilities as a rationale for limitations on embryonic stem cell research and usage in the USA. Such rational arguments as Elise’s point that Bush’s policy on that matter only affected the USA, not Belgium, and their daughter had had the benefit of the stem cell treatment available at their time and place, made no effect on Didier’s irrationality. Didier even engages in the ultimate insult, not to mention irrationality: conflating Elise’s religious beliefs with those of Bush, and saying all religious beliefs were responsible for putting the brakes on the science from advancing far enough to provide a sure cure for their deceased daughter. Let’s see now, Belgium is a Catholic country, with a Catholic monarchy, and it actually had embryonic stem cell treatment available (at least this is the case in the movie). (In real life, Belgium also has recent legislation legalizing human euthanasia.) Angry and despondent over the loss of her belief system (she does, after all, look up to Didier) she separates from Didier, declares her name to be “Alabama” in recognition of this “new chapter in her life”, and some time later commits suicide. That she was perhaps choosing to emulate Marilyn Monroe is hinted at by showing that there was a new tattoo bearing the words “Alabama Monroe” on her body after her death, may be an indirect reference to the suspected suicide of Marilyn Monroe.
Is love evanescent? Did they have only chemistry? What kind of a deity remains silent and non-intervening when He is said to love his creations?