The Brand New Testament
It wouldn’t be a film festival without at least one kooky continental offering. At least this one has a linear plot. And it couldn’t possibly be worse than the last European film I watched at a film festival. Mixing themes of religious faith, urban aimlessness, cruelty, sex and depression, The Brand New Testament promised to be an interesting and unique experience just from its plot description, but was it actually any good?
God (Benoit Poelvoorde) exists, and he lives in a small dingy Brussels apartment with his brow-beaten wife (Yolande Moreau) and restless ten-year-old daughter Ea (Pili Groyne). Growing tired of her father’s cruelty to the human race he seeks only to torment, Ea decides to follow her older brother’s footsteps and go out into the world, though only after letting everyone know the moment they will die. There, she seeks six modern day apostles – a lonely girl, a frustrated man, a killer, a sex pervert, an old woman and a dying boy – to write a brand new testament.
The slightly derogatory phrase you can use for films like this is “whimsical” (like exhibit #1, Amelie). A better phrase might be “weird”. The more derogatory phrase you could use would be “Eurotrash”. That is, a film from Continental Europe, especially France, Germany and the Benelux, that is just a bit too obsessed with sex, drugs and making a higher point from the two for its own good. While The Brand New Testament has religious faith as its central theme, it’s really just a very strange fairy tale masked as a post-modern Biblical satire, and one that gets increasingly demented and absurd as time goes on.
But, for the most part, it actually works really well, at least in the first two Acts, as we get a glimpse into director Jaco Van Doormael’s vision of a modern-day God exulting in a pissant little life where his only joy is in abusing humanity in a myriad of minor ways, and then follow his surprisingly charming daughter as she treks around Brussels and encounters different facets of modern-day life.
That first half hour or so might be the films best. There’s something really blackly comedic about a God who is such an unrepentant asshole, and Poelvoorde’s deity is a delight. Anyone who has ever had doubts about their faith in the face of life’s little annoyances will enjoy the depiction of a God who is only too happy to invent new ones, even as petty as “The other line always moves faster”. And it comes round wonderfully as the film progresses and God is forced to wander out into his own creation seeking his daughter: inevitably, wonderfully, cathartically, he ends up suffering from much of his own work, and the comedy of seeing this kind of thing interweaves with the rest of the story very well.
But the meat and bones of the whole experience must be Ea’s trek in the world and her search for six apostles, and a prophet, which splits The Brand New Testament into what is essentially seven short stories that come together for the last act. Some are better than others.
Victor, the vagrant who becomes Ea’ scribe, is the first person she encounters, his homelessness an unsubtle first jab at modern life covered over effectively with some of his humorous responses to Ea, such as mistaking her references to “JC” as being about “JC Van Damme” (which leads to one of the best exchanges of the movie later with God himself).
From there, it’s onto the apostles themselves. A more traditionally religious story would have faith in a higher power becoming the healer for all these people, but The Brand New Testament wants to be far more biting than that. Instead, a very humanistic drive to find self-fulfilment and romance, or both, is what saves peoples souls, a separation from the expectations of society and faith. It certainly isn’t faith in this films version of God, who himself roundly mocks the concept of “Love thy neighbour” as if it is the most ridiculous thing he has ever heard. Instead, it amounts to a fictionalised recitation of what I presume to be the directors own beliefs and agenda: one so thinly veiled as to be almost non-existent.
Laura Verlinden is the beautiful young woman whose life was irreparably damaged when she lost an arm in a bizarre accident, but Verlinden can’t really sell the role the way that Ea describes it: the film wants her to be some kind of sultry, sex symbol that everyone is in love with, and without showing too much disrespect to the actress, I just couldn’t buy it. Beyond that, her story was a good look at the common and silent mental health malaise that affects so many lonely people, who struggle to enunciate just why they fell this way.
Didier De Neck’s Jean Claude is one that will probably hit a lot closer to home for a lot of people. Middle-aged, locked in a dead-end job, frustrated, alone and with few prospects of things getting better – a brief locked on portrait shot of him eating dinner alone in a small apartment makes the point well. And there’s something altogether endearing about his decision to reject everything expected of him once he discovers his death date: a plea, perhaps, for people to greater reject that which society expects of them too.
The “sex pervert” – Serge Lariviere – is another interesting one, a glimpse at something close to Verlinden’s character, but far more sexually focused, that section of society that finds itself incapable of romantic relationships with the opposite sex, and are unhealthily hung up on such things. Poor Marc is an easily pitiable creature, but sympathetic too: one can’t help but root for him a bit as he tries, failing, to make a connection with people, and then resorts to prostitution before finding something a bit better.
The “killer” is one more tinged with black comedy and tension, as it’s never made exactly clear where Francois Damien’s character is an actual serial killer in the making or just someone making a lopsided plea for attention. Like the previous two, he’s a person uncomfortable with the social dictates expected of him, in this case being the family man, connected to a wife and son he cares little for, and openly fantasising about murdering random people. It’s here that The Brand New Testament began to lose me just a little bit, a fantastical pairing created by Ea being more fairy tale than effective allegory.
That pales into comparison with Catherine Deneuve’s Martine, an older married woman unsatisfied with her husband and her vapid existence. This manifests itself in visits by male prostitutes in search for fulfilment, before taking a turn for the extreme and ridiculous, The Brand New Testament taking this in a direction that I couldn’t view as anything other than weirdly bizarre, and a bit of a waste of a very established acting talent in Deneuve.
Lastly, there is young Romain Gelin as terminally ill Willy, who pops in late as an examination of gender roles in society, the treatment of sickness in youth and as a very lame love interest for Ea. By this point The Brand New Testament was starting to love me a lot: Willy’s story is a transition between the films better second act and a more turbulent, and ultimately unsatisfying third.
Because The Brand New Testament seems to be like a film where the production team had a firm, potential-filled premise – a bastard God’s daughter escaping into the real world – a good idea for an elaboration of that premise – finding six modern-day people to be new apostles – but then seemed to have no firm idea what they wanted from their conclusion. The result is something that approaches incoherent, condescending and altogether first draft-ish, as The Brand New Testament ends with a strange and bizarre fizzle, whose tone and thematic undertones are all over the place. At least, throughout, we have that wonderful God, whose final fate is one that ends the film on the appropriate final note.
Beyond all of that, the film is firmly anchored by Groyne’s Ea. She gives one of the best child performances I have seen in a while, and in material that is altogether adult as well, a double accomplishment. Her innocence in the face of peoples’ circumstances is something I expected, but the empathy she showcases, and a very Christ-like drive to improve people’s lives – minus the religious pontificating – was also very eye-catching. While I feel like a very decent black comedy could have been made about The Brand New Testament’s God alone, the film as it stands would be rather forgettable but for Ea, a new Messiah for a different age.
But, as with any comedy, it is in the fact that The Brand New Testament works when it comes to humour that the film is memorable. Much is made of the extreme premise – a personal favourite being the daredevil with a long life expectancy who keeps jumping from greater and greater heights to see how he will survive this time – but there is quirkier stuff as well, not least God’s wife’s obsession with the number 18, or a brief depiction of the Earth’s creation, amounting to a nude Adam and Eve wondering through a starkly deserted Brussels. No translation entropy here, and the jokes read as well in English as they presumably sound in French.
There’s a self-obsessed “pick-and-choose” method of deciding what, and what not, to satirise about Christianity here, with the director content to throw out rapid-fire side-humour whenever he likes but happy enough to lay out the premise and just let the story grow (until things go crazy at the end), though it is important to understand that this kind of “magical realism” has little relevance to the real world. And, thusly, even the most religious will find precious little to be genuinely offended about in The Brand New Testament.
It’s shot well too, though without any true stand-out moments of cinematography (bar, for the wrong reasons, the increasingly trippy surrounds of the last ten minutes). Van Dormael is content to show Brussels warts and all, the beauty of its parks and architecture contrasting with the grunge of some interiors, the life of the homeless or a red light district.
So, in the end, The Brand New Testament is a funny, occasionally thought-provoking exercise, that doesn’t quite reach the heights it could have reached. There’s a certain malaise past the half-way point that reaches a firm low as the film winds up, but that only partially takes away from the better stuff, most notably the films’ refreshingly cynical and pointedly satirical take on a deity that people seemingly have less of a connection with than ever before. Good cast, good script, interesting premise. It’s worth a look, for sure. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Le Pacte).