By Kate Hearst.
First screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, and recently released in the United States, Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael’s surrealistic fantasy, The Brand New Testament, chronicles a familial struggle between a mean-spirited patriarchal God (Benoît Poelvoorde) and his feisty ten-year old-daughter Ea (Pili Groyne) with humanity in the balance. Given the current testosterone-driven political climate, this satiric film becomes particularly thought-provoking.
Addressing the camera directly, Ea our young heroine explains that she lives under the tyrannical rule of her father God, and her submissive mother (Yolande Moreau) in a gritty Brussels flat. God spends his time coming up with “laws of annoyance” to make people’s lives difficult. His power emanates from a computer locked up in a room in the apartment. Ea’s brother “J.C.” has already been martyred and sits as a statue on a shelf.
Fed up with her abusive father who has just given her a vicious thrashing, Ea rebels by hacking into his computer where she releases to all people their death dates. These “death-leaks” appear on cell phones, permitting individuals to decide what to do with their own lives now that they know how much time they have left to live. This existential disclosure lies at the heart of this humanist fable, providing it with depth and resonance, as we witness the how ordinary people spend their remaining seconds, days, or years. Dormael’s humor occasionally borders on slapstick, as we watch a thrill-seeker repeatedly puts his life in danger with the knowledge that he has a long life.
Ea journeys to find six random apostles, to augment the twelve found by her brother J.C. with the intention to write a Brand New Testament. Since eighteen is the favorite number of their quiet mother, this will later trigger her divine intervention on behalf of humanity.
As Ea approaches each of her disciplines, she uses her female divine energy to touch them in unique ways by simply listening to the music of their heart, an intriguing theme which leads at times to arrestingly beautiful moments, and at other times to awkward situations. Pili Groyne gives a delightful performance in this role, reminiscent of a young Anna Paquin in The Piano (1993).
Ea’s nasty father follows her to earth. His obnoxious personality alienates everyone with whom he comes in contact, including a kind priest (Johan Heldenbergh) who saved him from an attack of soup kitchen patrons, upset that God had cut the line. Eventually, God ends up stuck in Uzbekistan working on a washing machine assembly line, unable to return to his computer.
Ea finds her first disciple, Aurélie (Laura Verlinden), a solitary and beautiful woman who lost her arm in a train accident as a girl. Ea gives her a dream whereby her lost hand reappears and ice skates on a table to Handel’s Aria, “Lascia Ch’io Pianga.” While severed hands usually give rise to shock á la Bunuel, this scene is one of Dormael’s most poetic, both visually and aurally.
The second apostle, Jean Claude (Jean De Neck), a numbers-crunching manager, decides to throw away his briefcase and live his final twelve years in a park. Ea opens up a communication between this middle-aged man and a bird with whom he ends up following to the Arctic Circle. Along the way, Jean Claude conducts a flock of birds to the ethereal music, “Le Rappel Des Oiseaux.” Once again, Dormael creates an enchanting image that lingers in the viewer’s mind long after the film’s end.
On the other hand, one of the most farcical scenes of The Brand New Testament involves Catherine Deneuve. She plays the fifth disciple, Martine, a despairing woman in a loveless marriage, with only five years to live. On the advice of Ea, Martine visits the circus and falls in love with a gorilla. While this relationship has it charm, the situation is pushed towards the bizarre, as Denueve and the gorilla are shown together happily in bed – a direct reference to Charlotte Rampling’s love affair with an ape in Nagisha Oshima’s Max Mon Amour (1986).
The other disciples discovered and helped by Ea include a Sex Maniac (Serge Lariviére) who is reunited with his childhood love; an Assassin (François Damiens) who falls in love with Aurélie, one of his targets; and a bullied young boy named Willy (Romain Gelin) who realizes his dream to spend his final fifty-four days as a girl.
Meanwhile, as the eighteen apostles appear in a painting of “Leonardo’s Last Supper” hanging in the Brussels’ apartment, Ea’s mother is inspired to act. She re-boots the all-powerful computer. As a goddess in her own right, she eliminates peoples’ death-dates and chooses to have only sunny weather for earth and its inhabitants. To this humorous end, flowers miraculously appear in the sky.
Reminiscent of Marlene Gorris’ Antonia’s Line (1990), Dormael’s film presents a subversive tale of the female divine conquering male patriarchy. While Dormael’s absurdist humor might not resonate for everyone, his visual imagination, enhanced by original music by An Pierlé, creates a striking cinematic ode to humanity in a feminist key.
Kate Hearst is working on a book, The Cinema of Barbara Kopple: American Activist. She earned her PhD and MFA in Film at Columbia University and has been teaching film history since 2011.