The opening film of this year’s Motovun International Film Festival was The Brand New Testament (Le Tout Nouveau Testament), a co-production between Belgium, France and Luxembourg, directed by the Jaco Van Dormael (who also wrote the screenplay, together with Thomas Gunzig). The fourth narrative feature of the Belgian filmmaker had its world premiere in the Directors’ Fortnight parallel section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but it could have been selected in the main competition of any Class A festival, as it is by far one of the most imaginative, pleasing and nevertheless stimulating films of recent years. With no divine intervention, Van Dormael could very well become the new Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and his Testament, the new Amélie.
Two decades ago, a pop song raised the question, “What if God was one of us?” For Jaco Van Dormael, God really is one of us. Actually, worse than us: Van Dormael’s God – who, incidentally, lives in Brussels, the director’s city – may be the biggest bastard we’ve seen on the big screen (although the Belgian comedian Benoît Poelvoorde makes him very amusing in appearance and behaviour). Not only is God horrible to his family, but he enjoys making fun of their creations, the human beings (it seems he’s the one who invented the so-called “Murphy’s Laws”, only he calls them “Laws of Universal Annoyance”), and, even worse, he enjoys making them suffer. He created our world out of boredom and he made several experiments before creating man in his image – the first chapter of the film, “Genesis”, is a phantasmagorical and hilarious cosmogony, just like the ones at the beginning and at the end of Van Dormael’s second feature, The Eighth Day (Le Huitième jour).
Other big news is that God has not only a son, Jesus Christ (or “JC”), of whom we know so much from the Gospels written by four of his 12 apostles, but also a ten-year-old daughter, called Ea (wonderfully played by the gifted Pili Groyne, who made her screen debut last year, in the Dardennes’ latest film). The girl becomes our guide in Van Dormael’s magical cinematic universe (as the director’s fans know, he usually employs a child’s voice-over narration). Disgusted with her father’s evil doings and listening to her brother’s advice, Ea decides to flee home (thus starting the film’s second chapter, “Exodus”), but not before getting back at God. In what news reporters would call “DeathLeak”, Ea texts every person owning a mobile phone their precise and inevitable date of death (which changes the whole world and, as “JC” points out, makes God lose all his credibility) and then she blocks his father’s computer, without which he is nothing more than a human being. Ea arbitrarily chooses six highly improbable apostles, whose Gospels would form her “Brand New Testament” (their intertwined stories represent the largest part of the film), written by a homeless man (the only human character who doesn’t have a phone, so he doesn’t know – and he really doesn’t care – when he’s supposed to die). By the film’s final chapter, “The Song of Songs”, the six apostles and Ea herself will find love in the most improbable ways, as The Brand New Testament speaks, last but not least, about love.
Jaco Van Dormael’s latest film can be analysed and interpreted in numberless ways. We could discuss, for example, the surreal moments in which the director makes use of either automatic associations or cartoonish visual effects, the subtle critique of the patriarchy (in this respect, not only Ea, but also her mother, Goddess, played by Yolande Moreau, becomes crucial for the film’s plot and message), the brilliant cast (Catherine Deneuve’s part is hard to forget) or the luxurious musical score (just imagine a flying, flickering fish singing Charles Trenet’s song “La Mer”). Practically each and every sequence testifies for the unlimited powers of imagination (and, obviously, of special effects). But, no matter how much we talk about it, The Brand New Testament is a cinematic experience everyone should enjoy.
Edited by Steven Yates
© FIPRESCI 2015