Madcap invention is nothing new to Belgian Jaco Van Dormael, who takes on the Almighty himself in his new high-concept comedy The Brand New Testament. Concept is certainly king in this instance, giving the filmmaker with a corking elevator pitch that is mined for genuine amusement but never quite manifests as something with the provocative credentials that it originally threatens to. You’ve heard the supposition that God is in fact dead? Or perhaps that he doesn’t exist? Well, how about the other one that God exists, is very much alive, and he’s a schlubby, bitter wretch living in a three-bedroom flat in Brussels?
That’s precisely where Van Dormael places the omnipotent overlord (an unkempt and vile Benoît Poelvoorde) at the beginning of his film. He shares his hermetically sealed home with his unnamed Goddess wife (Yolande Moreau) and his precocious daughter, Ea (Pili Groyne). While his wife seems oblivious to his vindictive nature – that sees him gleefully deigning that toast will always fall jam-side-down or that the phone will always ring as you’ve got into the bath – his daughter is far less willing to turn a blind eye. Dormael gets comedic mileage out of this initial setup, with his own alternative creation myth narrated by Ea , J.C. (David Murgia) relegated to a ornament on the sideboard after previous transgressions, and dark laughs to be found in God’s general disdain for humanity.
It’s with this that Van Dormael arguably makes his most brazen theological point, exploring the conflicted nature of an all-powerful deity and the existence of evil and suffering. Where Zeus ruled with flowing locks and bronzed skin from a magnificent peak, a clammy God sits in his dressing gown in a dingy room full of drawers that calls to mind the likes of Terry Gilliam. Then comes the second killer concept – ‘DeathLeaks’. Having decided that enough is enough, Ea hacks dad’s computer and messages everyone in the world with their exact time and date of death. A litany of chuckles are then found in the varying reactions to the news from the daredevil repeatedly testing his longevity to those making the most of their time. At this point, The Brand New Testament begins to lose its way somewhat despite escalating surreality.
Ea flees the apartment to add six new apostles to the previous twelve including Catherine Deneuve’s Martine who finds love in the arms of a gorilla and François (François Damiens) a hitman with a heart. Fantastically funny moments still pepper the sagging narrative – God being sprayed with mace is a laundrette and strangled by a priest are two highlights – but the momentum falls away significantly. As it proceeds, the tone also shifts to one of a far more optimistic bent, but striking a balance between the dark and combative religious humour and its more saccharine elements proves difficult. While everyone loves a happy ending, The Brand New Testament’s perhaps serves to undermine its genuine potential.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson