‘The Brand New Testament’: Cannes Review

A religiously incorrect but irresistibly funny work of the imagination

God is a mean bastard from Brussels, but his daughter is determined to set things straight in cult director Jaco Van Dormael’s madcap fantasy

Imagining God as a wrathful bastard living in Brussels who gets his kicks watching his creatures suffer, and his 10-year-old daughter Ea as humanity’s no. 2 Saviour after her brother JC retires to become a statue, Jaco Van Dormael confirms his title as Belgium’s wacky philosopher-king of filmmakers.  Most recently seen exploring the nature of time in the sci-fi-sh Mr. Nobody, he apparently felt ready to tackle a serious subject like the way God mis-runs the world. The Brand New Testament (Le Tout Nouveau Testament) does not disappoint; on the contrary, it is irresistibly laugh-out-loud and feel-good, without the sticky-sweet undertones of The Eighth Day, which starred a boy with Downs syndrome. Apart from the support of Catherine Deneuve, in good form as one of the 18 Apostles, there are no international names to push it along, and the Franco-Belgian-Luxembourg comedy will have to fend for itself on strong audience word of mouth after its bow in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight.

In these times of religious sensitivity, there is a sizeable risk that the premise will offend a certain swathe of the audience. In reality, the fantasy of a violent God (a slovenly, snarling Benoit Poelvoorde) storming around a dark apartment and mistreating his long-suffering wife (wonderful comedienne Yolande Moreau) and daughter is so stratospherically far out, it has the venom of a Monty Python routine. This said, when the film pops the age-old question about why evil exists in the world, it places the blame squarely and solely on Mr. Big. We get a glimpse of him spraying a cardboard mock-up of Brussels (his first creation) with a shower nozzle, setting fire to buildings and making trains and planes crash – all a source of Almighty delight.

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Van Dormael’s absurdist sense of humor is best served in the details. He thinks nothing of staging a scene of 40 men cracking nuts that will take up two seconds of screen time, but they get a laugh at the right moment and it pays off. For the creation of Brussels on the first day, enormous giraffes surreally stride down empty city streets. Chickens and ostriches also misfire, until a middle-aged Adam appears walking around starkers with his nether parts digitally blacked out – a hilarious update on the fig leaf, and no less irrational.

God also gets off on writing thousands of Laws of Annoyance (example: whatever line a person stands in, the other one moves faster.)  Each law is quickly illustrated onscreen and each is a hoot. All this will backfire on him when he chases Ea (Pili Groyne) to Earth to stop her campaign in favor of humanity.

On the friendly advice of her brother JC, now reduced to a small talking statue on her closet, she has broken into Daddy’s secret chamber piled high with rusy drawers and card files on his creatures (one of Sylvie Olive’s most surreal sets). Hacking his computer, she vindictively initiates what will become known on Earth as “DeathLeaks”: she texts everyone the date of their demise on their cell phones. The effect is immediate.  Wars cease; people leave their dull jobs and move to Antartica. Some, whose days are in the smaller numbers, empty their bank accounts and follow their dreams. God realizes he no longer “has mankind by the balls” and is furious.

When JC reveals to Ea that she can escape her father's locked house through the washing machine, she jumps inside and comes out in a city laundromat. With the help of a homeless man who becomes her scribe, she sets out to find six new Apostles. Each time she recruits one, his or her face appears on a Last Supper tapestry back home, much to her mother’s surprise. The first is the lovely but loveless Aurelie (Laura Verlinden), who lost her arm in a subway accident when she was a child. Ea introduces her to another new disciple, known as the Killer (Francois Damiens) for his desire to off people randomly. A rich but desperate wife (Deneuve) finds her soulmate in the zoo: a big, burly gorilla with bad teeth. And so on. It's a bit disappointing that none of the newcomers has that much to add to the gospel, and the film flags a bit as Ea tracks them down one by one. The last on her list is Willy, a little boy her age who is dying from all the meds his mom feeds him. His final wish is to become a girl, and he spends the rest of the film wearing a snazzy red dress.

The comedy gets its steam back in the final Wiz of Oz scenes when Ea’s housewifely mother sets aside her embroidery and vacuum cleaner to assume her role as Goddess in a delirious, fully satisfying ending. Moreau’s wide-eyed astonishment and joy in creating doilies in the sky is a howl. Fittingly, the final credits are embroidered.

The self-possessed young Groyne, who appeared in the Dardennes brothers’ film Two Days, One Night, is every inch a goddess in miniature and a fine match for her angry father as he continues to haplessly pursue her. Poelvoorde has his finest moments spitting out bile to a kind priest, who finally goes for his throat, and his ultimate fate is straight out of  Borat.

Tech work from the director’s regular cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne has an easy, natural look that belies the craziness onscreen, while editor Herve De Luze shows a grand sense of comedy pacing. 

Production companies: Terra Incognita Films, Climax Films, Apres Le Deluge in association with Juliette Films, Caviar, Orange Studio
Cast: Pili Groyne, Benoit Poelvoorde, Yolande Moreau, Catherine Deneuve, Laura Verlinden, Didier De Neck, Serge Lariviere, Francois Damiens, Romain Gelin, Marco Lorenzi
Director: Jaco Van Dormael
Screenwriters: Thomas Gunzig, Jaco Van Dormael
Producers: Jaco Van Dormael, Olivier Rausin, Daniel Marquet
Director of photography: Christophe Beaucarne
Editor: Herve De Luze
Production designer:  Sylvie Olive
Music: An Pierle
Casting: Michael Bier, Patrick Hella.
Sales Agent: Le Pacte
No rating, 113 minutes