Review: Le Tout Nouveau Testament (The Brand New Testament)

God exists. He lives in Brussels with his teenage daughter. And he’s a jerk.

This is the premise of Jaco Van Dormael‘s latest feature: Le Tout Nouveau Testament (The Brand New Testament). The film focuses on Ea, sister of Jesus, or J.C. in this universe. Her father, who happens to be God, is an abusive and pettiful creature, who rules the world through his computer. He shouts at his wife, beats his daughter, and makes up rules for mankind, such as “the other line at the cash register will always move faster.” He’s a prick who enjoys the suffering of his little toys, people. J.C. escaped years ago, and now his sister is ready to step into his footsteps and write her own testament.

She shuts of her father’s computer, but before doing so she lets the whole world in on a little secret. ‘Down below’ everybody gets text messages telling them how long they have left to live. She also randomly chooses six people from the database, who will serve as her disciples. Those six will complete her brother’s twelve. And eighteen happens to be her mother’s (a baseball fan) favourite number.

She enters our world through a washing machine. Baptism in the modern age? She arrives in Brussels, and immediately meets a new friend. A homeless person who shall serve as the author of her Brand New Testament.

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Laura Verlinden and François Damiens in The Brand New Testament

The film then follows a strict structure. We get introduced to the person Ea will court to be her follower, and then we see that person meet Ea. She hears their ‘music’ by listening to their heartbeat. She changes them. They follow. The cast of characters include:

  • a beautiful young woman, who lost her left arm as a child
  • a man on a bench, pondering over his life, who ends up following a flock of birds to the end of the world
  • a sex maniac, still struck by his childhood love
  • an assassin who decided that he holds no responsibility for killing people, since that must have meant they ran out of time
  • an older woman trapped in a loveless marriage, who ends up falling for a gorilla
  • a young boy with only weeks left to live, who wants to spend the rest of his life as a girl
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Catherine Deneuve in The Brand New Testament

The film moves from one character to the next, resulting in an, almost unavoidable predictability. But the viewers may know where the next stop is, there’s no way they can predict what they’ll find there. It’s absurd and comical – Catherine Deneuve is paired with a gorilla – and sometimes gritty and real – refugees take shelter in the church where God, on a quest to get Ea back, ends up after being beaten on the street.

The film’s power lies in its absurdity and originality. Witty insert scenes, an exciting set of characters and a ludicrous ending, where the beaten housewife saves the day, make this one of the most remarkable films I’ve seen this year. It may follow its own strict structure, but it doesn’t follow anyone else’s.

One thing the film doesn’t really accomplish is, getting its story across. An abundance of characters, each with their own plot. Frequent jumps between life on earth in Belgium, where Ea finds her way and in heaven a conservative middle class home where God’s wife is left sullen and alone. And then there’s the overarching question, upon which the entire film is built: what would you do if you had x days to live? Following all of these paths isn’t easy, and the film sometimes fails to give us a poignant ending point for each of them.

But perhaps leaving an audience searching and questioning was the initial goal. Van Dormael definitely succeeded at meeting that criteria, all the while blending it with a mix of satire and magic.

The film was part of the director’s fortnight line up at Cannes this year and will have its UK premiere at the London Film Festival next month. The film was released in Belgium and France earlier this month, and will have an Italian release in November. You can watch the trailer here. Don’t worry if your French isn’t as polished as it should be. Sometimes an image … – you know the rest.

Random Thoughts

  • Catherine Deneuve is amazing. She even has chemistry with apes.
  • I personally didn’t have any problems with the ‘boy wants to be a girl’ plot, or the way it was handled. I did however come across a transgender person online, who took offense. This person felt as though they were made a fool of, and, in hindsight I can definitely see where they were coming from. However, I do feel as if the nature of the film allows for more wiggle room.
  • Everyone is white. Belgium may be a pretty white country, Brussels is most definitely not.
  • J.C. – How cool is that?
  • Couldn’t care less about the romance plot. (The assassin falls in love with the girl with one arm. She, of course, makes him stop shooting people. Bad Guy Good Girl Cliche)
  • Despite having a lot of other actors to play with, Pili Groyne, who portrays Ea, really does have to carry the whole thing. And she does it beautifully.

Verdict

If you ever have the chance, go see it. Brussels feels incredibly real and recognizable. Except that it’s basically a fairy tale.

A-

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