• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Saturday, June 27, 2020

    The Brand New Testament (2015)

    "God exists. He lives in Brussels. He's a bastard. Horrid to his wife and daughter. We've heard a lot about his son, but little about his daughter." 
    So begins Jaco Van Dormael's The Brand New Testament (2016) an off-beat Belgian comedy that sets the Almighty on a collision course with his only...daughter. Deciding she has had enough of the way her father runs the universe, and egged on by her brother 'JC' (who appears only as a living statue), Ea begins a to try and counteract his tyranny. Firstly she texts everyone the date of their deaths. Then, having managed to escape from the Brussels flat where they all live she asks a gentleman of the street to help her add six new disciples to JC's original twelve, because of her mother's love of baseball and it's teams of eighteen.

    The majority of the film, then, features the testimony of each of these disciples as they talk about their lives  - a brand new testament. There's an unmarried data manager; a beautiful twenty-something with a false arm; a gunman with an obsession with death; a lonely sex-addict; a teenage boy who wants to be a girl; and a lonely housewife played by Catherine Deneuve. Given she is by far the biggest star associated with the film Deneuve's casting is particularly interesting. We're told her character has an incredible depth of feeling in her heart, but she plays the icy blond just as she so often has before. Van Dormael shoots her in pale grey against white backgrounds. Whilst she is perhaps best remembered for her role as a fantasising housewife-turned-prostitute in Buñuel's Belle du Jour (1967), here she hires a young male prostitute, before ultimately settling down with a Gorilla. Buñuel would have loved that, I suspect.

    Other characters also fall in love. God's daughter may not have inherited her father's temperament, but she is certainly capable of working in mysterious ways. The sex addict is miraculously reunited with his childhood crush; the data manager falls for a woman living in the Arctic Circle; the trans teen forms a deep bond with Ea herself. Most strikingly of all, the gunman realises his obsession is not death, but fate. The unfailingly accuracy of Ea's texts inspires him to shoot randomly, knowing he can chalk any resulting deaths down to fate, rather than personal responsibility. When his first shot hits the twenty-something's prosthetic arm the two end up falling hopelessly in love.

    Indeed it's the question of fate that's the main theme here, rather than morality. As the opening narration suggests God does not come out of things very well - a petty, vindictive and abusive bureaucrat who fails to find redemption. But while he and his misanthropic rules provide a few smirks, that side of the story always feels a little like a comedy sketch given too much latitude. Whilst the film has so much empathy for its characters from the margins of society (typified by Van Dormael's characteristic concern for those with disabilities), it has seemingly no compassion for the lonely self-hating deity at it's heart. Van Dormael's God is a "slob like one of us" but without the relatability inherent in Joan Osborne's song.

    Visually Van Dormael's work is perhaps a little less controversial than his theology it also has its idiosyncrasies. It has the look of films like Amélie (2001) though Sight and Sound's Leigh Singer claims Van Dormael did such "whimsical fable"first. The darker moments and accompanying cinematography are also reminiscent of Delicatessen (1991). There's a focus on Christian art that is not only present though the many religious paintings which appear during the film, but also in the frequent use of the kind of tenebristic lighting most of us associate with Caravaggio. Yet this contrasts with other brighter, greyer or geometrically precise scenes elsewhere. Van Dormael contrasts God's oppressively dark and gloomy flat with the liberating breeze and warm light of the outdoors. Similarly the use of religious music throughout adds to this mishmash of the sacred and profane, not least in the song-avatars that Ea discerns for each of her disciples. 

    There are also numerous little quirky visual touches to the film which add to its humour as well as minor, unrelated story lines to keep things ticking over. Realising he will not die for many years a vlogger starts throwing himself from ever higher platforms for the thrill and media attention. Moments such as these not only offset the blackness of the film's darker moments but also conceal further questions about fate and morality. The first time the vlogger's jumps his fall is broken by one less unfortunate than himself, yet he carries on, even as he accumulates several serious injuries. It's no coincidence that the role that Van Dormael gives to himself is as "l'automobiliste qui n'a plus que 0 seconde à vivre" (the motorist who has only 0 seconds to live) who is distracted while driving by the very text message announcing his death.

    Ultimately though the characters find their personal 'salvation' through love and self determination. The film leans heavily into the idea of the Gospels as accounts about personal connection, though there is also an emphasis on the importance of a faith community, growing together.  

    However, sadly the film ducks the more profound questions about fate and determinism and aside from the difference Ea makes to the lives of her chosen six, her work on Earth is arguably not much greater than her father's. He meddles by inventing irksome rules about bread always falling jam side down, or about the other queue always moving fastest; she tweaks the lives of only a handful of followers, to bring them happiness. She's 10 of course, but the film suggests she is done meddling with the world, and that we will be better without her or her father's interference. 

    Perhaps the difference is that Ea seems like one of us. Whereas her father exists in the dark, tucked a way in a huge room with wall to wall filing cabinet, she lives like one of us. Her message, perhaps, is that we can all have a small impact on the lives around us. As endings go, it's nice enough and the time spent getting there was entertaining enough with a few moments of interest. Somehow, however, I had just hoped for a little bit more. 
    The Brand New Testament (Le Tout Nouveau Testament) is available to stream via the Channel 4 website (in the UK at least) until the 16th July. 



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