The Brand New Testament (Le tout nouveau testament)
France (2015) Dir. Jaco Van Dormael
Religion is a touchy subject to create art from, even more so if you choose to lampoon it – just ask the Monty Python team! Clearly not fazed by the prospect of being smote by a bolt of lightning, Belgian writer-director Jaco Van Dormael decides to give the rules of Bible a bit of a rewrite in this philosophical satire.
Contrary to popular belief, God isn’t a benevolent white bearded old man living in the clouds but a grumpy, cynical misanthrope (Benoît Poelvoorde) residing in a small flat in Brussels, with his meek wife (Yolande Moreau) and rebellious 10 year-old daughter Ea (Pili Groyne). Fed up with the awful way her father treats the human world via his computer, Ea decides to put things right again.
She sneaks into the office one night and sends out the dates people will die on to everybody around the world, then locks the computer up before fleeing to France. There, Ea must find herself six disciples to write a Brand New Testament, one which will make the world a much happier place.
Obviously the synopsis alone is going to cause those of a pious nature to blow a gasket and cry blasphemy but the reality is that this Van Dormael isn’t intent on causing offence with this film at all. He is simply using the concept of God and our existence under the rules of the Bible to ask a simple question: what would you do if you knew how long you had left to live?
It’s a fair question to ask and perhaps it could have been done without any theological angles but when many people tend to turn to the good book when they learn their time is up, Van Dormael is offering an alternate set of parameters by which we can play out our final days. And what if those original guidelines weren’t exactly fair to begin with?
God being portrayed as bullying drunkard whose caprice includes deliberately making it rain, creating natural disasters and starting war, won’t sit well with many, along with him making it a rule that bread falls jam side down, the other queue moves quicker and your dream partner won’t love you. He is also mortal, with only Ea, his wife and his estranged son JC (David Murgia) possessing powers.
When Ea arrives in France (via the washing machine) she first encounters a hobo Victor (Marco Lorenzini) whom she designs the writer of her brand New Testament despite him being semi-literate. She then seeks out her six disciples whose backstories and differing reactions to their impending demises are played out in a series of vignettes which eventual converge for the finale.
First we meet Aurélie (Laura Verlinden), an attractive young woman who lives alone because of her false left arm; next is Jean-Claude (Didier De Neck), a former adventurer who gave it in for a desk job he now hates; then there is Marc (Serge Lariviere) a self-confessed sex maniac who continues to lust after his first childhood crush.
Next is Francois (Francois Damiens) is an insurance salesman turned serial killer; number five is Martine (Catherine Deneuve) a middle aged women stuck in a loveless marriage; and finally 10 year-old Willy (Romain Gelin), a sickly child who wants to live out his final days as a girl.
They each have interesting and different stories to tell as do many other supporting characters when they reveal their way to close their time on earth after receiving their death date,. In a running gag, a cocky teen named Kevin (Gaspard Pauwels) becomes a social media star by filming literal death defying stunts in which he is saved at the last second.
Another running gag as such is when God finally discovers his daughter’s actions and follows her to France, where he is blighted by the very annoyances he so cheerfully created! In one particularly ironic scene, God is talking with the priest who runs a homeless centre at the local church (Johan Heldenbergh), and contradicts every Biblical lesson the priest recites to him, blaming his son for spreading a false message.
I can hear the gnashing teeth of the faithful reading that but actually the Priest’s faith isn’t perturbed by this at all, in fact it strengthens his resolve. This is true with the film’s overall attitude – it offers an optimistic dissertation about fate and getting the most from life, suggesting perhaps it takes two or three goes before things fall into place.
With its decidedly offbeat comic opening, Van Dormael runs the risk of peaking too soon with the humour, therefore he introduces some pathos into the mix which gradually gives way to some thoughtful drama. The leftfield approach is still a dominant presence, not in the least the outcome of Martine’s scenario (presumably a first for Catherine Deneuve), but the tone remains respectful if sobering.
The script by Van Dormael and Thomas Gunzig is chock full of witty observations and esoteric similes (“a voice like 30 men cracking walnuts”) and contains plenty of thought provoking banter without trying to challenge or debunk the Bible or God. It is helped by the delivery of the solid cast of some well know faces – Benoît Poelvoorde, Yolande Moreau, Francois Damiens and of course the legendary Catherine Deneuve.
But it is Pili Groyne, in just her third film, who owns this film carrying the bulk of it on her young shoulders with the poise and professionalism of someone four times her age. She is charming, personable, amusing and manages to handle the weighty philosophical dialogue with fluid ease. A future star no doubt.
It is only really the portrayal of God that I can imagine being seen as truly offensive to devout viewers otherwise, with an open mind once will see The Brand New Testament is a bold and provocative satire proffering an alternate perspective in pondering a pertinent conundrum.