The Brand New Testament (2016) Comedy-Fantasy RT: 112 minutes No MPAA rating (language, violence, nudity, sexual content, thematic elements) Director: Jaco Van Dormael Screenplay: Jaco Van Dormael Music: An Pierle Cinematography: Christophe Beaucarne Release date: December 16, 2016 (Philadelphia, PA) Cast: Benoit Poelvoorde, Pili Groyne, Yolande Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Laura Verlinden, Didier De Neck, Serge Lariviere, Francois Damiens, Romain Gelin, Marco Lorenzini, Johan Leysen, David Murgia, Anna Tenta. Spoken in French and German w/English subtitles
One-hit wonder 90s singer Joan Osborne once asked “What if God was one of us?” Although the song received way too much airplay on MTV for my taste, it’s an interesting question nonetheless. Writer-director Jaco Van Dormael (Toto the Hero) builds on this query in The Brand New Testament by reimagining God as a mean, ill-tempered, abusive drunk who lives in Brussels high-rise and loves messing with people’s lives. It’s a bold idea, even more so than depicting God as a kindly old man with a penchant for funny one-liners- i.e. the late George Burns in the Oh, God movies. It sounds blasphemous, and it might even be so, but it’s also hilarious in a dark sort of way.
God (Poelvoorde, Man Bites Dog) spends most of his time coming up with rules designed to drive the human race crazy- e.g. the other line always moves faster, bread will always land jam-side-down, etc. He lives in an apartment with his mute wife (Moreau, Micmacs) and ten-year-old daughter Ea (Groyne, Two Days, One Night). There’s no leaving the apartment save for the washing machine which, if set properly, has a chute leading to the outside world. After being punished for snooping into her father’s business, Ea breaks into his computer and sends everybody in the world their death dates. In knowing exactly when they’ll die, people stop fearing God and start doing whatever they please.
Ea escapes to the outside where she sets about gaining six apostles and writing “A Brand New Testament” (hence the title). By her side is a homeless guy, Victor (Lorenzini, The Dark Side of the Moon), she enlists to be her scribe since she can’t write very well. The first is Aurelle (Verlinden), an attractive woman with a prosthetic arm. The rest are as follows: Jean-Claude (De Neck), an unhappy man who decides to never move from a park bench now that he knows the date of his death; Marc (Lariviere), a sex maniac still obsessed with his first childhood crush; Francois (Damiens), a killer who shoots people with a rifle knowing that they won’t die unless it’s been predetermined (hence, not his responsibility); Martine (Deneuve, In the Name of My Daughter), an unhappily married rich woman who falls in love with a gorilla and Willy (Gelin), a sickly boy with not much time left who decides he wants to be a girl. Each one relates his or her life story while Ea listens intently, collecting their tears when they cry (she can’t cry herself, so she collects tears).
Meanwhile, her irate father follows her into the world where, in an interesting twist of irony, he’s mistreated by the very beings he created. Ea locked him out of his computer and he needs to find her so he can get back in and set things back to where he thinks they belong.
Invariably, there will be those who object to The Brand New Testament and its depiction of God. I like to think the Big Guy has a twisted sense of humor and would probably find it funny. I certainly did. Rest assured that it’s never crude, vulgar or in bad taste. Instead, Van Dormael imbues it with a dark, warped sensibility. I mean, how else would you describe a movie that romantically pairs one of the most gorgeous actresses in France with a big, hairy gorilla? It also has a zany, cartoonish side. There’s a running joke about a guy with 62 years left to live who keeps testing fate by performing potentially fatal stunts. It’s like Mack Sennett, Tex Avery and Luis Bunuel all rolled into one.
The Brand New Testament isn’t without its minor flaws. For example, it’s never made clear exactly why Ea selects the people she does to be her new apostles. We know why she chooses six; it brings the total to 18, the same numbers of players on a baseball team. Baseball just happens to be her mother’s favorite pastime. Some of the images in The Brand New Testament are quite striking. The ending is really cool, visually and otherwise (i.e. more irony). The cast goes a great job in their respective roles. Poelvoorde is hilariously boorish and loud as he struggles to maintain order in his own household as well as the whole wide world. Groyne is terrific as his strong-willed, rebellious daughter who longs to follow in her older brother J.C.’s footsteps (while avoiding his fate, of course). Deneuve, still gorgeous at 73, is a good sport.
I laughed more at The Brand New Testament than I have at most recent American comedies- okay, I’ll cop to enjoying Bad Moms and Bad Santa 2 but that’s all I’m saying. It’s neither mean-spirited nor disrespectful. If anything, it supports the idea of a Supreme Being even as it suggests he’s not quite who we learned about in church and Sunday school. It’s a good movie; I don’t think the makers are in any immediate danger of eternal damnation.