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Johan Heldenbergh
Johan Heldenbergh On
"The Broken Circle Breakdown"

– Belgium's Foreign Language Oscar Entry
By Beverly Cohn

elgium actor Johan Heldenbergh is an amazing multi-talented man. He is the writer of the original play "The Broken Circle Breakdown" and played the lead character of Didier. He has resurrected the role in the film version, co-written by Carl Joos and Felix van Groeningen, who also directed. The story is best described as a romantic melodrama, which mines the love story between the characters of Didier and Elise, a young woman whose entire body is decorated with tattoos depicting her life's story. Beautifully played by Veerle Baetens, the leads are rounded out with Nell Cattrysse, who gloriously plays their five-year old daughter Maybelle. Johan, who plays the banjo, and Elise who is the female vocalist, are part of a Blue Grass band called the Cover-ups of Alabama and the story takes us through the lives of Didier and Elise as lovers, musicians, and parents. The sound track is exciting and captivating and almost becomes another character as the lyrics to some of the songs reflect the drama unfolding on the screen. Spoiler alert: Do bring some Kleenex tissues.

poster for the movie 'The Broken Circle Breakdown'
The film is Belgium's entry for Best Foreign Language film. Courtesy photo.

Your reporter recently sat down with Johan for an in-depth, personal, exclusive interview and the following has been edited for content and continuity.

After seeing many of the film entries for Best Foreign Language film, in my opinion, your film is hands down the best and I hope it wins?

Johan: It's very nice of you to say so. We're very proud of the movie, of course.

Are you exhausted from this press trip?

Johan: I've got a couple of ulcers. I was very tired coming here because the last few months have been dreadful. I broke up with my girlfriend after a 20-year relationship. She's the mother of my children. I've known her since we were very young. We met at school and now it's over. This is tough stuff.

Is it a relationship that can be restored?

Johan: I'm not certain. I have a new girlfriend now and we'll see how that evolves.

Johan Heldenbergh as Didier and Veerle Baetens as Elise in Fellix Van Groeningen's 'The Broken Circle Breakdown'
L-R: Johan Heldenbergh as Didier and Veerle Baetens as Elise in Fellix Van Groeningen's "The Broken Circle Breakdown." Courtesy photo

Does the story line with your character of Didier and Elise (Veerle Baetens) parallel your personal situation?

Johan: At this time of my life, it's very painful. When I saw the movie in Berlin, and the break-up between the two characters, I said this is the last time I will see this movie because the character is too close to myself and Elise is too close to my former girlfriend.

This is a delicate story and in the hands of less talented people, it could have been very maudlin so it's a tribute to all of you that it in some ways it's life affirming in that you can come out on the other side of the tragedy, but not necessarily where you thought you were going to be. Would you agree?

Johan: That sounds very accurate and it's funny that you say so. When Felix (director) started talking to me about making a movie based on the theatre play, I said that there is a movie in there, but be aware that there are twenty-four very bad movies and there's one very good one and it's your job to find the good one because it's very dangerous to just go into the melodrama and put the emphasis on the child.

Veerle Baetens as Elise, the female vocalist in the Blue Grass band with Johan Heldenbergh's Didier on the banjo
L-R: Veerle Baetens as Elise, the female vocalist in the Blue Grass band with Johan Heldenbergh's Didier on the banjo. Courtesy photo

Did you think you manifested your original intention to write a play with a political statement without the soapbox?

Johan: You said soapbox and I always refer to the soapbox thing. I wanted to make a political statement. I want to say to people I'm scared right now. When I start writing, I always start with a political point of view. For example, my last play was about the politics in Belgium, but then the story took over and with "The Broken Circle Breakdown" it was the same. I wanted to write something about religion and then I chose Bluegrass music as a mirror and if you listen to the music, it dictates the story.

Would you listen to the music and then write?

Johan: There were a few songs like Bill Monroe's "Blue Yodel #5" with the lyric "Mom is not dead, she's only sleeping," and "If I Needed You" by Townes Van Zandt and after listening to those two songs, I felt I must invent the saddest story I can imagine. At the time, I was already in a mental break-up with my former girlfriend so I just started writing and all of a sudden I felt that we should have a little girl and she should be called Maybelle and she dies. Technically, I'm responsible for the structure and 90% of the text, but Mica, who co-wrote the play with me, is responsible for the most beautiful 10%. She added the female voice.

Were you politically motivated to write the character of Maybelle?

Johan: Yes. I wanted to say something about the Bush veto of stem cell research. It was a year before I wrote the play, but it was constantly on my mind. I kept thinking how could he do that?

Because of the influence of the extreme right wing faction of the Republican party.

Johan: I'm not here to criticize any American president. This is the European point of view, of course. I don't live in America, but in Europe, we were scared at that time because of the war on terror and the axis of evil. All these words came across the ocean and it was very frightening. I guess that's how Maybelle took over the story.

Could you elaborate a bit more?

Johan: I was raised as a Catholic boy and there's a creed in the Catholic Church: "I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary…" etc. My religious teacher would say think about what you're saying and believe what you're saying. But by the time I was ten years old, it didn't make sense to me. I grew up as a person very much involved and influenced by religion and the Catholic Church and was trying to be a good person, which I think I am. But when I became an atheist that was my liberty in thought. You had the Americans with their very strict Christian religions and on the other side Islam. I wanted to get the message across that it doesn't matter what you believe and what you need in your life as religion, but that it's important that you give that same freedom to others. I find it strange that people think that if you don't believe in God, you're a bad person or don't have morals. I'm a very moral guy. I believe in being good, in gratitude, and love.

How was the transition from the play to the film version?

Johan: That's a big question and there are a lot of answers. First of all, I played the part of Didier 150 times in the theatre and it was hard. The performances were Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and every Sunday morning I was at the breakfast table with my children and I'd be crying. I'm an actor guy. You have to be the character, but you don't have to take the misery home, but it was too hard not to. Let's throw away modesty. I was very good and it was my story. Then Felix decided to make a movie and I said that I was sorry, but I couldn't be part of the changes that were going to be made. Just give me the changes and I'll give you my opinion.

Was something in the film version that you wished was not in there and/or was something not there that you wished was included?

Johan: Yes. There are two things. The scene with the dead bird when he tells Maybelle the bird has to be in the bin (garbage can) because she can't throw it in the green (compost). That's something I imagine that Didier would never say. He would understand and it was very hard for me to say that line because it made Didier harder and tougher than in the play. The second thing is they threw away the first monologue that Didier does and for me there was a crescendo as an actor in the second monologue where I shout out about God. I think it throws people off because it's too much of a surprise because it comes out of nowhere. I talked to Felix about it and he made it very clear that it had to be cut and he's right.

How did your philosophy as an actor help you bridge acting in the play vs. the film.

Johan: I very strongly believe that you have to be in the moment and don't bring a lot of luggage with you. I always say to myself you are right here, right now, and you are doing a movie, and this is the scene. You're going to do it and don't think about anything else. Sometimes it's hard, but I had to forget about the play.

As a wordsmith, did you cringe when you saw some of your beautiful writing deleted?

Johan: Yes, but I promised myself that I would give Felix 100% freedom because if it was me, I would demand 100% freedom. I have a theory that very much suits me as an actor called the "four subjectives." The first one is the writer who writes the story, the second one is the director who tells the story in images and should have the freedom to throw away his respect for the writer; the third subjective is that the actor should have the freedom to make his own story and then you have three stories all together which makes something rich, and then the fourth objective is the audience which can look at the story in different ways. So Felix threw his respect for me aside as a writer and as an actor, I could do the same. It was a nice struggle, but it was very organic.

The Blue Grass/Country soundtrack really helps drive the narrative. How did you come to that decision?

Johan: The Coen Brothers' movie "O Brother, Where Are Thou" revived Blue Grass music around the globe but it was used in a comical way. They say country music is three quarters of the truth and for me it is the most honest music. You don't need amplifiers because it's acoustic. You just take a guitar off the wall and start playing and your uncle can join in on the bass. The lyrics are full of hope that one day we will be at the pearly gates and Jesus is building a mansion for me. It doesn't matter that I'm poor over here. It's the perfect music for the story.

Did you ever think the album would be No. 1 in France and Belgium?

Johan: No. That's amazing. The producer paid for the musicians and the CD was made already and he went to Universal and asked them to release it but was told that was country music and that sound tracks don't work in Belgium and they resisted. But the producer insisted and Universal finally said yes.

The Blue Grass Band, the 'Cover-ups of Alabama' of Flemish musicians from Ghent and Antwerp
The Blue Grass Band, the "Cover-ups of Alabama," is actually comprised of fabulous Flemish musicians from Ghent and Antwerp and for the first time a soundtrack CD is Number 1 in Belgium and France. Courtesy photo

The band was so good that I thought you flew in musicians from Nashville, but now I know they were all Flemish locals.

Johan: (Laughs) That's a big compliment. They're from Ghent and Antwerp. But you know everywhere around the world there is a Blue Grass community and there are amazing players.

Who were the American actors you admired growing up?

Johan: Of course, I liked the normal ones like Al Pacino, Robert De Nero, James Stewart, and Burt Lancaster. Dianne Wiest is my favorite actress. I also love Mira Sorvino. I'm from the old school too. I love Frank Capra movies and musicals with Fred Astaire.

Did your parents approve of your career choice?

Johan: First of all, we were reasonably poor when I decided to go to theatre school so I paid for everything myself. I thought my mother really believed in me and when I was in the third year of theatre school, she sent me a letter. She said she pretended to believe in me, but after seeing the play, she said I really do believe in you. It was a big moment for me.

It's been a pleasure chatting with you. I wish you the best of luck both the Oscar race and in your personal life.

Johan: Thank you so much.

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Let Bev know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Thanks so much for those lovely tourism photos, especially of Ireland. I certainly enjoyed all the places you suggested, and am working towards my next vacation. Don’t forget Cuba. That’s an exciting place.

Rosalie, Los Angeles

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Enjoyed your article on Mira Sorvino. Such an interesting background – family, education, career and now human rights activist. I'm not a gossip mag fan so getting more meaty news about movie celebrities from you gives me hope that there are some inteligent life forms in Hollywood.

Peter Paul, Pasadena, CA

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Thank you, Bev. This reminded me to go see the movie, "An Education," which I had already almost forgotten about, having seen the preview a few weeks ago. I enjoy this actress quite a bit--she has a uniqueness about her and she pulls me in. I enjoyed this.

Sandeee, Seattle, WA

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Thank you Beverly,I really enjoyed reading about your intimate conversation with Forest, of whom I am a great admirer. I look forward to seeing the film "Our Family Wedding."

Yoka, Westlake Village, CA

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Thank you for the sending me the beautiful article you wrote about Ireland. We will use your recomendations for hotels in the Southern part. We plan to also go to Dublin and some other Northern cities so I will get some recommendations for these from others. After reading your article, I am getting more excited about going. I think we will be in Ireland for 8 days altogether.

Leah Mendelsohn, Santa Monica, CA

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Very much enjoyed Ms. Cohn's article about Munich, especially the visuals. Though it has been 25 years since my last visit, the piece brought back countless pleasant memories of the city and the people!! Many thanks.

Lawrence, Los Angeles

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Marianplatz and that general area is truly one of the best Christmas celebrations in the world. Between that and Oktoberfest (which I can only imagine) Munich is one of the greatest cities in the world for major annual events.

Christopher Dale, New York, NY

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Hi Bev, you have done some wonderful pieces on some great celebs...Great work. The travel articles are just wonderful too.

Scott Mueller, Huntington Beach, CA

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Your great Zurich article makes me want to go there for the holidays! I love the photos, too, especially the ones of you in the sleigh, the view over the houses and the zoo!

Anna Marie, Santa Monica, CA

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Lovely article! As a European, and having been to Zurich (albeit in summer) I can vouch for this lovely city. Great pictures, too!

Helene Robins, Santa Monica, CA

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Hi Bev,

Nice review, nice seeing you, nice website interface "...Talk to Bev" - Enjoy your Thanksgiving!

Richard D. Kaye, Marina del Rey, CA

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Hi Bev,

Your interview with John Cusack is very interesting. I always wondered why these actors/actresses always get top billing when really, if you think about it, the real work come from the animators, writers and tech whizzes who spend far more hours on the movie than those actors. I know, I know, it's the all about marketing. The names of these actors are what bring in the big bucks. Still, I think these actors are way overpaid for the "little" that they do.

I remember that once upon a time, the early animation classics never mentioned the voices behind the characters. I think it was only later when Walt Disney tapped into the voices of known celebrities like Walter Matthau in the Jungle Book or Zsa Zsa Gabor in The Rescuers that the voices became a marketing magnet.

Keep up the good work. I enjoy your interviews as you peer into the lives of the Hollywood celebrities.

Peter Paul of South Pasadena, CA

Ed Boitano's travel blog/review
Three Musical Pilgrimages: Mozart, Grieg and Hendrix

Troldhaugen Villa in Bergen, Norway
Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) could read and compose music, plus play the violin and piano, when he was five years old. Born into a musical family in Salzburg, Austria (then the Holy Roman Empire), he had a unique ability for imitating music, which first became evident when he recited a musical piece by simply observing his father conducting a lesson to his older sister. This led to a childhood on the road, where the young prodigy performed before many of the royal courts of Europe.

Go There

Tom Weber's travel blog/review
Treasures of Ireland: The Irish Goodbye (Dispatch #20)

Irish sunset

The Palladian Traveler brings to a close his 20-part series on the Emerald Isle from an upscale restaurant in downtown Dublin where he files his final dispatch and then quietly slips away.

Go There

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