Lacerating and heart-breaking, beautifully told and with fine music
On the face of it, this is a simple and alas reasonably common tale : – man and woman meet, fall in love, have a time of bliss, and a child, who intensifies and changes their bliss, and then some tragedy strikes the child, and everything is changed utterly, and unravels into pain all the way.
This isn’t too much of a spoiler, as the opening of the film shows a small child in hospital, being talked through receiving something intravenously, and we see from the parents’ expressions this is not going to be good, and immediately the viewer knows where we are heading.
Any individual story is only going to work if we engage with the protagonists, though surely a suffering child almost automatically is going to grab most of us by the throat, sinew, gut and heart, squeeze and not let go. I must admit from the very beginning I was short of breath, and saying ‘oh no, no, no’
However, there has to be some leaven to get the viewer through this and this Belgian film, directed by Felix van Groeningen, manages its leaven spectacularly, both in filmic, narrative terms and the excellence of the 3 leads.
Elise (Veerle Baetens) is a quirky young woman who owns a tattoo parlour. She meets Didier (Johan Heldenberg, who also co-wrote the script) a blue-grass musician in love with America and its country music. The wonderful, intricate music runs through the film, as the band achieves greater success and scenes take in concerts from little smoky dives to larger stadiums.
The structure of the film (and it works stunningly) is non-linear, as over 7 years of relationship cuts between different moments of past and present. The audience is pretty well in the know of ‘what happens next’ all the way through, so what we focus on is the how and the internal psychology of the individuals. Intercut with this is the friction between faith (Elise) and atheism (Didier) and the wider way in which politics, medical research and individual lives collide.
Baetens and Heldenberg offer beautifully raw, real performances, and are un-airbrushed and unsentimental.
However – I mentioned 3 leads – little Nell Cattrysse as Maybelle, Elise and Didier’s daughter, will not so much break your heart as rip it in pieces.
No doubt this review is screaming at the more sensitive – avoid, avoid, but, there is real joy and sweetness within it, and the savour and fizz of life, the upsides as well as the downs, are engaged with. The non-linear narrative inserts slivers of the very very good and the very very painful cheek by jowl with each other. And this is how life is.
A strong heart and a day of equanimity might be needed for this beautiful rendition of If I Needed You by Baetens and Heldenberg
Belgium’s entry for Best Foreign Language film for the 2014 Oscar nominations
I received this DVD as a review copy as part of the Amazon Vine programme, UK