God Is a Sadistic Internet Troll in the Delightful French Satire ‘The Brand New Testament’
Director Jaco Van Dormael’s film provides a delightfully funny take on religion—and features the iconic Catherine Deneuve shacking up with a very unlikely partner.
God is a prick in The Brand New Testament—a balding, middle-aged bastard (Benoît Poelvoorde) living in Brussels who spends his days wearing a dirty T-shirt, plaid bathrobe, and socks with sandals, and who lords over humanity by using an office computer that controls the universe. This filing cabinet-filled room is one of three in His average urban apartment, which He shares with His mute wife (Yolande Moreau) and His rebellious 10-year-old daughter Ea (Pili Groyne), the latter of whom speaks to her defiant brother JC (David Murgia) through a ceramic desktop figurine of him that sits on top of her dresser. Poelvoorde’s God created man to ease His boredom, and toys with their lives like a nasty kid torments ants with a magnifying glass—be it staging religious wars or creating annoying holy laws that result in people always being stuck in the slowest grocery store check-out lane, or making it so that whenever jam-covered toast is dropped, it lands face-down. Arrogant, petty and cruel, He’s exactly the sort of divine creator who’d saddle the world with Donald Trump.
Poelvoorde’s deity may be the initial center of attention in director Jaco Van Dormael’s film, but he ultimately plays second fiddle to Ea (her name, perhaps, a combination of Eve and Adam’s initials?). Fed up with her domineering father’s heartlessness, Ea takes the advice of her brother and endeavors to escape her home (via her clothes dryer duct, since the apartment has no doors leading outside). She does this in order to accomplish something JC himself thinks will be “awesome”: namely, find six more apostles, who will tell their own stories in a Brand New Testament that will help reshape the world in an image friendlier than that of her rancid paterfamilias. However, before she can up the apostle count to 18 (the number of players needed for a game of baseball, her mom’s favorite sport), Ea first hacks her dad’s computer and sends out text messages to everyone on Earth that reveal the exact dates of their death. God’s master plan revealed to all, as it were.
Ea’s quest to locate her chosen disciples (whose holy ID cards she’s pilfered from her father’s archives) is one of discovery and reinvention. Though devoid of her beloved sibling’s capacity for miracles—the best she can do is move small objects with her mind, and magically clone ham sandwiches—she boasts an overwhelming curiosity and kindness, and it’s that compassion which drives her mission of mercy. Upon arriving on the rain-soaked streets of Belgium—and puking up a fish burger she dug out of a dumpster—Ea enlists homeless Victor (Marco Lorenzini) to jot down the testimonies of those she visits, each of whom suffer from literal and spiritual loneliness. They include a one-armed beauty (Laura Verlinden), a killer (François Damiens), a single wannabe-adventurer (Didier De Neck), a sex maniac (Serge Larivière), a wife trapped in a loveless marriage (Catherine Deneuve), and a young boy being slowly, secretly poisoned by his mother (Romaine Gelin). Together, they’re a sextet of disaffection, and thus primed for Ea’s guidance to see the future—or what they have left of one—in a new, more transformative light.
In recounting its fantastical tale—which, unlike most American films, is perfectly comfortable mixing the sexual with the sweetly sentimental—The Brand New Testament embraces a whimsical aesthetic that will be recognizable to anyone familiar with 2001’s Amélie, as the film operates as the sort of borderline-cloying work for which French auteur Jean-Pierre Jeunet is famous. Dormael’s fable is emblazoned with CG-heightened colors and a sugary uplifting score, rife with interconnecting storylines that speak to a grand unifying design, marked by an overarching belief in people’s inherent goodness and universal desire for togetherness, and chockablock with random flights of fancy. When one character says a homeless man’s voice “sounded like thirty guys cracking walnuts,” and director Dormael briskly cuts away to a visual approximation of that description, one can just about imagine Jeunet calling his lawyer to discuss stylistic copyright infringement.
So yes, The Brand New Testament’s form is, shall we say, derivative. And those who found Amélie—or any of Jeunet’s subsequent, less successful behind-the-camera endeavors—near the top of the unbearable-imaginative-quirkiness scale will bristle at some of its devices and homilies (“Life is like a skating rink”), especially once the material veers into more outright treacly territory. Rather than making any bold statement about the nature (or value) of religion, Dormael and co-screenwriter Thomas Gunzig’s script is most concerned with suggesting that the forlorn should ditch their past traumas, stop caring about others’ opinions, and seize the moment. It’s a saga intent on using its out-there conceit to impart a heartwarming message about the importance of fearlessly doing what you want to do and being who you are, no matter the potential blowback. As such, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, than Jeunet should feel duly complimented, as the film proudly takes the best aspects of its spiritual influences and weds them to a cleverly told tale about a collection of lost souls, and a universe, righting its wayward course.
Even more than its fanciful flourishes, however, The Brand New Testament is elevated by its consistent sense of humor. That begins with Poelvoorde’s God, a cantankerous creep who tells a priest that JC misquoted Him—because He would have said to hate thy neighbor, just as He hates himself—and extends to the rest of the action’s off-kilter characters. Best is Lorenzini’s bum assuming that Ea’s mention of “JC” refers to Jean-Claude Van Damme and, upon hearing that she’s unfamiliar with Double Impact and Universal Soldier, telling her “You’ve seen nothing.”
And in an amusing finale, everyone casts off the shackles of preconceived notions and constraining societal norms to fully inhabit their true inner selves—an uplifting message that’s epitomized, hilariously, by the sight of the regal Deneuve (upending expectations as well as poking fun at her own former sex-symbol image) choosing to shack up, at home and in bed, with a giant gorilla.