Tattoos play a central role in the award-winning Belgian film The Broken Circle Breakdown, one of five finalists for this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Directed by Felix van Groeningen, this tragic love story—about a couple whose passionate relationship unravels when their daughter becomes ill—is currently touring the U.S. and will be available on iTunes & video on demand on Feb. 4.
The film, an adaptation of a stage play, centers on tattoo artist Elise (Veerle Baetens) and Didier (Johan Heldenbergh), an America-loving banjo player in a Belgian bluegrass band. For the film version, the director turned tattoos into a powerful leitmotif. He relied on Brussels-based tattoo artist Emilie Guillaume to design the butterflies, birds, hearts, skeletons, and inked-over names of former lovers that adorn Elise’s lithe body––and to help develop the character.
Guillaume reports that the director quizzed her about the life of a tattoo artist, asked her to adapt some of her own tattoos for the character, and borrowed interior design ideas he spotted in her Brussels tattoo shop.
“Felix didn’t know a lot about tattoos,” Guillaume, 32, told me by phone. “It was a real discovery for him. He wanted to know about the life of a female tattoo artist so that the character didn’t fall into becoming a cliché.”
The tattoo as cinematic storytelling device is nothing new, but for Broken Circle Breakdown, the tattoo designer, director, and head makeup artist worked closely together to ensure that the tattoos were an organic part of the narrative, not merely a gimmick or an ornament.
“He wanted the tattoos to tell the story of a life and not just be about imposing a style,” Guillaume said of the director. “To create a credible character and make it seem natural that she would have those tattoos, I designed the motifs specifically adapted for her, as I would do for any person.”
Broken Circle Breakdown is an undeniably raw, sometimes melodramatic love story, and the tattoos, with their overt symbolism, create the impression that the film’s leading character has seared her heart right onto her skin. An elaborate chest tattoo includes a heart with wings and two skeletons in an embrace.
“They reflect her personality,” Guillaume said. “She needs love and she’s very emotionally fused in her relationship.” A bird sketched onto her neck “shows her freer artistic and spontaneous side,” Guillaume said. A butterfly with a face on it was based on a motif that the director found on the Web.
To design the tattoos, Guillaume said that she spent a week sketching before drawing final designs on paper and coloring them in with acrylic paint.
The designs were tailored to fit the actor’s body and then laser printed on a special transferable paper that stayed in place for up to four days at a time.
One tattoo that stands out from the others is a purely decorative bow at the base of the character’s spine; it seems like a permanently inked morsel of man-pleasing lingerie.
“That was something Felix found very sexy,” Guillaume said. “Personally I never would have proposed that!” she added with a laugh. “But it’s true that she is a very sexy character.”
The first time Elise and Didier meet, she gives him a quick tattoo-based tour of her body, pointing out where she has covered up the names of former lovers. And when they undress for the first of many times in the film, her tattoos seem to serve as a gateway for him to discover her body.
“In reality that’s also what happens,” Guillaume said. “I’m very heavily tattooed, and when I meet someone in a romantic context they always want to look at them, read them, they think it’s all written there and will explain everything. When a woman is strongly tattooed it makes a very strong impression on a man and he’s always surprised and curious to see more, to know how far she will go with it.”