Potential Space

by Jane Reingold, MFT


"Will the circle be unbroken?" croons a closely huddled band of bluegrass brothers beautifully harmonizing, setting the stage for what is to emerge. In Felix van Groeningen's The Broken Circle Breakdown, Didier, a Flemish-bohemian-cowboy Bluegrass musician, and Elise, a spirited, bohemian tattoo artist, meet and fall in love.  He reads her body, her second skin:  two skulls embracing on her chest, a day of the dead tattoo on her arm, a new tattoo of a gun with Didier's name. Death and the afterlife, reason versus faith, are up for examination here, as scenes intermittently shift to a very sick child with cancer in a hospital bed.

As Didier explains, the Appalachians believed the music was a way to manage sorrow and hope for a better afterlife. We too are spared in bits from the sorrow. The music provides a salve that allows a bit of a respite from what feels unbearable.  Although their relationship had until then withstood change and tension, the marital container could not hold Didier and Elise's different experiences of grief; to know of the other's experience of grief was too painful and fractious. A certain mutuality/reciprocity is lost, leaving them to devolve into blame and grievances about transgressions previously forgiven in one another.

Elise changes her name and erases Didier's name from her scarred body, perhaps as a way to symbolize the death of their creative coupling, the potency of their love. As loss inevitably revives past losses, we are left to wonder what additional internal or external losses Elise is re-experiencing. As we watch the differences in their mourning emerge as a wedge between them, Elise moves out and pulls away from Didier.

A climactic meltdown takes place center stage, where Didier unleashes his rage and grief, causing Elise to flee. Both partners seem blinded by their own grief and unable to hold the unmanageable in themselves or the other, leading to tragic escalation.

We must bear the unmanageable in our clients as well as in ourselves while also retaining the capacity to contain, think and process psychic pain/experience. In our work, we hope to help grieving couples regain their capacity to think and process their experience, to recognize the different nature of their grief, as well as to find a place of mourning together where each can ask for and give support. The film's last scene takes us full circle back to the band of brothers, once more huddled together crooning, perhaps reassuring us that we will get through life's tragedies together, perhaps some of us unbroken.