A powerful romantic adventure drives the heart of this over-the-top melodrama featuring a nonlinear narrative that jumps around in time. Inherently cinematic, it betrays little of its stage origins as it offers bits and snippets from the romance, marriage, and ultimately doomed family life of Didier Bontinck (Heldenbergh) and Elise Vandevelde (Baetens).
This Belgian film begins shortly after the couple meet but cuts back and forth in time to detail in full their lives together. They begin with a romantic and lustful explosion, marry and have a child, Maybelle (Cattrysse). What unites them throughout is not just love and family but their involvement with American bluegrass music. Didier plays banjo in a band, which the heavily tattooed and working tattoo artist Elise, eventually joins. The bearded, often brooding, Didier finds his greatest joy in music and in Elise whose many tattoos are used in ways that are emblematic, symbolic, evocative, and erotic.
The film is constructed in essentially two sections, each marked at the beginning with the foreshadowing of a terrible and defining tragedy. This overwhelming sense of dread and impending disaster is set against the wild passions of their romance and lovemaking, as well as the exuberance of the expertly performed and beautifully chosen music. Most of the tunes are traditional bluegrass, although a poignant use of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” is heartbreaking – both romantically and in how it serves as the prelude to a devastatingly destructive rant by Didier.
Romance, family, and bluegrass are the dominant themes of this broad, intense melodrama, but the film also deals with issues of faith, religion, politics, and reason. The conflicting, and sometimes contradictory, flow of these issues is emphasized by events throughout the film: The couple’s love, the band’s performances, and the family’s interactions begin sweetly, only to become haunted by illness and death.
The play was written and performed throughout Belgium by the film’s lead actor Heldenbergh and Mieke Dobbels, who is not in the movie. Her role is taken by Baetens, whose electrifying, sometimes scary, performance is matched by Heldenbergh’s turn as Didier, who, while mostly restrained, suppresses powerful and molten emotions. Ultimately, the film’s many charms drown somewhat under crushingly sad events. Still, there is redemption in the chemistry between the two lead characters, their passions and complexity, as well as in the grace of the music as it is performed and how it is used.