The popular line with regard to Belgian filmmaker Jaco Van Dormael is that his thunder has been stolen by more commercially-successful filmmakers who practice a similarly quirky, whimsical style, such as Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Wes Anderson, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. I’m not really sure why this is the case, as Van Dormael’s films have generally been acclaimed by critics and have always performed reasonably well at the box office, particularly in French-speaking countries, although he has never had a hit on foreign shores to compare with, say, Amélie or Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. I doubt that The Brand New Testament will be the film to change that, but it’s a delightfully-odd comedy nonetheless, and I dare say its style will be appreciated by those who like Jeunet and Anderson’s films in particular. The premise is that a sadistic, angry God (played by Man Bites Dog star Benoît Poelvoorde) lives in an apartment in Brussels with his cowed wife (Yolande Moreau) and daughter Ea (Pili Groyne), who he beats with a belt; they’re currently awaiting the return of son JC and leave a place set for him at the kitchen table. God created Brussels and everything in it using a computer in this apartment, but then he became bored, so he also created man in order to have something to torment, and tormening the human race has become his favourite pasttime. (One of the funniest sequences of the film arrives when God dreams up a series of rules specifically designed to irritate people – bread must always fall jam-side down, the phone will always ring when you’ve just got into the bath, etc. – and we also see him playing around with a model of the city, with which he constantly subjects the city’s residents to rainclouds, traffic jams and crashing aeroplanes.) Ea rebels against her Father’s meanness and hacks into God’s computer, sending everyone in Brussels a text message that reveals the amount of time they have left before they will die. Once the information is disseminated the city descends into chaos, with some desperately trying – and failing – to keep the Grim Reaper from the door and others who have been given several decades to live taking full advantage of their temporary immortality (with one man in particular becoming a star of social media as he performs a number of increasingly bizarre death-defying feats). Rather than incurring God’s wrath, Ea decides to leave the apartment (via a portal at the back of a washing machine, of all things) in order to follow in her brother’s footsteps, writing a brand new testament with the help of a scribe.
Much of the film plays out in an episodic fashion as Ea deliberately interferes with the lives of six people she picks out as her own potential apostles. There’s a male sex addict who is obsessed with a woman he met when they were both very young, a supermarket manager who has lost the will to carry on, a young boy who only has a short amount of time to live, a woman who lost one of her arms in an accident and feels that no-one will ever love her as a result, a would-be assassin who is fascinated with death and an older woman trapped in a loveless marriage (the latter played by Catherine Deneuve, who gamely ends up in bed with a giant gorilla). All the while God searches for Ea in the city, though his own temperament and behaviour cause him no end of trouble, and he becomes the film’s punchbag in a very literal sense. There’s lots of voiceover – mainly delivered by Groyne, but also by the actors playing her apostles – and plenty of breaking of the fourth wall, including lots of centrally-framed characters who stare directly at the camera (see Anderson, Wes and Jeunet, Jean-Pierre). It’s a lot of fun, with plenty of odd images appearing throughout, such as giraffes wandering around the centre of Brussels, hens watching a film in a cinema and a floating CGI fish that sings Charles Trenet’s La Mer. Van Dormael’s wickedly offbeat satire challenges religious dogma by putting its female characters in the driving seat, having them write new contributions to The Bible and even allowing God’s wife to take full control when her husband is shipped off to Uzbekistan. It’s designed to provoke, and it will offend some religious groups, but it’s also a playful, silly film, and buried under God’s ranting and raving there’s a distinct, positive message about tolerance, and showing kindness and warmth to those around you who may be existing within the margins of society, or who may be harbouring hidden pain. Wildly inventive, surreal and – at times – very funny.
Directed by: Jaco Van Dormael.
Written by: Jaco Van Dormael, Thomas Gunzig.
Starring: Benoît Poelvoorde, Pili Groyne, Yolande Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, François Damiens, Laura Verlinden, Serge Larivière.
Cinematography: Cristophe Beaucarne.
Editing: Hervé de Luze.
Music: An Pierlé.
Running Time: 114 minutes.