So, God exists. He lives in Brussels in a cramped, tatty apartment. He wears a string undershirt and slippers and behaves like a petty tyrant toward his wife. And while we might have heard of his son, who in this reading seems to have defied His will by walking among the people and getting himself killed for his troubles, we probably know less about Ea, his daughter. But it is Ea who is the narrator and heroine of Jaco Van Dormael‘s, silly, sweet-natured and stylish alternate theology comedy “The Brand New Testament.” And at ten years of age, Ea wants to set the world, which her mean-spirited father regards as his own personal playset, to rights.
With apple-cheeked but deadpan precociousness, Ea (played by delightful newcomer Pili Groyne, last seen as one of Marion Cotillard’s kids in “Two Days One Night“) begins by recounting the Genesis story, but from this uniquely skewed, Belgian-centric perspective. And from the off, Van Dormael, along with cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne, indulge in some striking, droll imagery: a tiger watching static on a hotel TV; giraffes cantering by a deserted crossroads amid blue glass skyscrapers; a control room of infinite filing cabinets in which God (a choleric, ratty Benoit Poelvoorde) devises arbitrary annoyances or inflicts massive disasters on the peoples of the world, with a few taps at his outmoded PC. It’s Terry Gilliam without the Dutch angles; Michel Gondry without the handmade aesthetic.
Ea’s mother, we learn later is a Goddess, whose own power may match that of her domineering husband, but who is cowed into a subservient domesticity, with embroidery and her baseball card collection her only comforts. God, by contrast, is a hockey fan, which leads Ea to the totally logical assumption that if she can up her brother’s quotient of disciples from 12 (the number of players on a hockey team) to 18 (the number on a baseball team) the balance of power might shift toward her mother, which would be better for all Creation. To that end, she escapes the flat via the washing machine and sets about finding six more randomly chosen disciples, so she, or rather the hobo she recruits as a scribe, can write a Brand New Testament. But just before she sets out on her odyssey, she makes a bid to destabilize her father’s power base by sending to everyone on Earth (via their cellphones, naturally) the date of their death.
Some of the best and most inventive jokes that Van Dormael and co writer Thomas Gunzig make are spurred by this contrivance. People react in all sorts of ways: some insist on maintaining their lives as before, others become wild hedonists, and in a recurring joke, one young guy takes to flinging himself out of windows, off bridges and from airplanes, safe in the knowledge that some increasingly random trick of fate will save him, because today is not his day to die. And then there are the six characters (Catherine Deneuve‘s Martine among them) who have to deal not only with this massive ontological revelation, but also with this peculiar child turning up, listening to their “inner music” and insisting that their stories become the new Scripture.
If it feels like I’m giving away too much plot, don’t fear, there’s plenty more where that came from, including Deneuve doing a “Max Mon Amour” with a circus gorilla, a hitman who falls in love, a priest who punches God, a fish skeleton that sings “La Mer,” and so on. It should become exhausting, the endless details and curlicues and flourishes, in the way that untrammelled caprice often can. But Van Dormael’s instinct to keep the tone fizzy rather than farcical, to never take anything too seriously and most of all, to cleave to a central note of sweet, melancholic optimism about the wonder of being alive, allows the film to remain fresh and funny.
In fact, if there’s a criticism to be made it’s that having earned so much goodwill Van Dormael doesn’t do more with it, doesn’t try to push through a more progressive agenda. The film’s overriding white heteronormativity doesn’t help in this regard either — not really addressed until the final chapter which sees a young boy decide to live as a girl, other sexualities and minority ethnicities are practically absent. It seems oddly regressive to have a film in which Catherine Deneuve can be shown in a loving post-coital embrace with a gorilla not feature so much as a gay kiss elsewhere.
But for all it’s got a supposedly controversial logline, Van Dormael doesn’t really want to rock the boat with “The Brand New Testament,” he just wants to splash about in the myths and lore of Christianity like a kid in a fountain on a hot day. And so he takes a self-servingly a la carte approach to the dogmas he lampoons, finding time for a pointed side gag here and there but mostly being content to set up the outrageous basics and let it tick along according to an internal logic that can’t really be applied to the real world, and therefore can’t truly cause too much offense.
Van Dormael’s last film, ambitious immortality sci-fi yarn “Mr Nobody” was a 2009 title not released until 2013 Stateside, to a very mixed response (here’s our review), but with “A Brand New Testament” he delivers a more satisfyingly complete film, even if it’s a sight less grandiose. Lovely to look at, charmingly played throughout, and with a sense of fun that is more playful than subversive, “The Brand New Testament” is a bouncy treat: not so much heresy as whimsy, with a smooth matte finish and a mischievous grin. [B+]