Belgian helmer Jaco van Dormael emerged on the filmmaking scene with Toto the Hero
a life-long spanning story condensed into a 90-minute kaleidoscope made
up of flashbacks and fantasies of the eponymous protagonist. Van
Dormael´s penchant for epic narratives came into full realization in his
third feature, Mr. Nobody
a saga revolving around 118-year-old mortal human (pop)philosophizing
on life though three parallel storylines. Notwithstanding the mixed
reviews and some fervent cries of it being a failure, Mr.Nobody
became a textbook example of pop-arthouse fare rather than a guilty pleasure.
After an exhausting process of getting Mr. Nobody done, the director returns with the less over-structured yet no less charming piece, The Brand New Testament.
His penchant for decades-spanning storytelling dominates the first act,
trading human lifetimes for more grandiose scale, while milking one´s
entitlement to personal interpretation of ontology in the
Judeo-Christian tradition with Van Dormael sarcastically
(d-)r-econstructing Genesis chapter of the Good Book.
preludial axiom here negates Friedrich Nietzsche's most notorious quote
on the decline of the almighty, and proclaims God alive and kicking,
and from that point onwards, the director sticks to marquise de Sade´s
accusation of the one and omnipotent as being an asshole with a short
God (Benoît Poelvoorde) lives at a permanent address in
Brussels. From there he carries out his creation based aspirations on a
vintage computer, throwing the first specimens of humankind out to roam
the deserted streets of Brussels... with occasional giraffe-spotting.
Both prototypes, male and female, sport not a fig leaf but a more chic
and hip black censorship bar. The almighty seems to be consummated by
juvenile acts of sabotaging human lives of all things the most.
inequality rules over his household, with his spouse the Goddess,
harnessed to being a silent and ever-obedient housewife, passing the
time bycollecting baseball cards. His 10-year-old daughter Ea (Pili
Groyne), like many of her pubescent peers, is fed up with father´s cruel
antics. And with the firstborn J.C. (referring to Jesus Christ) nowhere
around, decides to scramble the current order of things.
In a zealous effort to revise the New Testament,
she ventures on a mission to recruit six new apostles, as times have
drastically changed since J.C's. sandals shook the dust on the face of
the Earth. As an act of rebellion set against her dad, she pulls an
Edward Snowden on daddy´s files, messaging every single soul whose
expiration date is coming down to the last second. The incident,
reported as DeathLeaks, does not throw earthlings into the consuming
maelstrom of chaos and nihilism as it rather prompts a reevaluation
process on the meaning of their lives and the so-called true values they
try to achieve before the bell tolls.
Dormael deploys his signature poetics of magical realism in a prevalent
story design. Ignorance is bliss and humans have the tendency to ignore
their mortality and rather wallow in a dead-end and comfort limbo of
life. Despite the irony and prickly humour, the Belgian director crafts a
very humanistic fable circling the the wide-spread notion of life being
a constant and often futile pursuit of happiness.
aware of touchy-feely pitfalls and tear-jerking potential, van Dormael
approaches the sentiment through the back-alley of mild subversion as
the premise of God being a choleric and irritating asshole. The director
abandons the epic narrative in favor of a panorama of episodes.
Characters targeted by Ea as new apostles take turns revealing their
(ill-)fates, while striving to set their lives straight as a homeless
man pens them down: An elderly office drone becomes liberated after the
revelation of his death date and loses himself in wanderlust; a hitman
breaks off a loveless marriage and follows his not so cold-blooded
heart; The character played by Catherine Deneuve finds tenderness and
affection in the furry embrace of a gorilla she has helped escaped
captivity, while a young boy chooses to live the remaining minuscule
slice of his life as a girl.
Van Dormael, in
tandem with his co-writing partner Thomas Gunzig remodeled what could be
labeled as symptomatic templates of contemporary life situations,
injecting them with a surreal spin on existential burdens, all the while
stirring the sentimental and subversive into a compact mélange. The
final product is equally charming, hilarious, sweet and uplifting,
elegantly circumnavigating saccharine bathos and melodrama.
feel-good nature and self-help wink-wink nudge-nudge erupts from the
film as a constellation of simple (pop)psychoanalytical sessions, the
couch being swapped for a comfy cinema chair. It´s evident that Van
Dormael would bend backwards to conjure up a smile in the most depressed
face which makes The Brand New Testament more comprehensible as
the director´s counterattack on the life's-a-bitch platitude, a negation
craftily and inventively elaborated around the core of the
Although van Dormael does not achieve the same kind of satirical fervor
against religious fundamentalism as Riad Sattouf exerted in Jacky in the Kingdom of Women
, and it would be a false expectation, both films correlate on the theme of feminism. Though in the case of The Brand New Testament
it´s just a part of a bigger design adhering to the initial idea of
pursuing happiness. Yet the postulate of having women in the leading
places of religious hierarchies, resulting in peace flooding the earth, is
definitely worth the thought.
It's worth noting that Toto the Hero, The Eight Day, Mr.Nobody and The Brand New Testament
originated in the mind and came to life under the hands of the very
same man that once made living by setting laughing children as a circus
clown. The essence of his former career echoes strongly and, in no way
whatsoever, wrongly in his current achievements.
The Brand New Testament is then a modern, magical, dreamy and rollicking fairy tale for adults - possessing an inalienable zeitgeist quality.
In addition to playing Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas this week, The Brand New Testament is currently in theatrical release in Belgium, Luxembourg and France, with Fall festival dates across Europe.