The Brand New Testament (Le tout nouveau testament) Review
A useful guide as to whether you will enjoy this film is to ask whether you enjoyed any of the following films: Amelie, Big Fish, Mood Indigo. If the answer is yes, then jump right in. But if the answer is no, then take a sharp right turn and head for the exit.
Jaco van Dormael is anything but prolific, having made a measly 5 feature films in the last 25 years, the best known of which is Toto The Hero. The Brand New Testament also features a child as the main character. She is called Ea, and is the daughter of God. However, this is not the God that you may be familiar with – or even believe in. This God is an angry and unpleasant middle-aged man who lives in Brussels and delights in tormenting mankind (which he created) in all matters great and small.
He operates from a locked room inside his house, with an antiquated computer and a filing system out of Gilliam’s Brazil. His son JC has left home; his wife checks her baseball card collections and doesn’t speak; but his daughter Ea is not happy at the way he behaves and decides to take him on; in the process she in effect becomes an alternative and preferable God (or should that be Goddess?)
It’s an appealing notion, and when I saw the trailer I thought it would be an incisive black comedy. But in its full length version, the comedy is dangerously leavened with whimsy, illogicality and irrelevance. There’s a lot of good stuff in there, but it doesn’t amount to coherence.
Ea’s first act is to let everyone know when they’re going to die, which creates an understandably unstable situation among those who have much less (or more) time to live than expected, and causes them to question how best they should spend the time they have left. Now that would have been an interesting film about free will, predestination and what priorities we live by. But instead, we have a repeated gag (borrowed from Groundhog Day) of a man doing absurdly dangerous things knowing that he can’t die.
Meanwhile Ea slogs across Brussels collecting her six apostles, each of whom has to tell their back story, while the film stops in its tracks, losing whatever momentum it has gained. And somewhere behind, God Mark 1 is trying to catch her up and put a stop to her attempts to make the world a better place.
The fact that a good script is the key to a good film is hardly a biblical revelation, but it is a truth that is all too frequently ignored. Van Dormael has the basis for an excellent film in his hands; but he is too much in love with his visual jokes, his one-liners, his quirky characters and some primary school anti-Christianity to allow that film to emerge. He could be suggesting Ea and her dad as versions of the Old and New Testament; it could be a feminist parable, or a story about how children make a better world than adults. But he can’t resist putting a gorilla in bed with Catherine Deneuve, or visual gags that aren’t funny. And don’t get me started on the music.
I’d love to have loved this film; but I didn’t.