On higher (and lower) sources of power, the fear of death, and the recycled material of late-20th Century stand-up comedy
The Brand New Testament Music Box Films
Director: Jaco Van Dormael
Screenplay: Thomas Gunzig and Jaco Van Dormael
Starring: Pili Groyne, Benoit Poelvoorde, Catherine Deneuve, Laura Verlinden, Francois Damiens, Serge Larivière, Marco Lorenzini, Romain Gelin and Yolande Moreau
Not rated / 1 hour, 54 minutes / 2.35:1
(out of four)
In the Oscar-nominated short film The Voorman Problem, God - or a god - rudely wipes Belgium off the planet, and from all collected memory. As if it never existed. In Jaco Van Dormael's The Brand New Testament, Belgium gets its divine revenge. Here, not only does the country still exist - or exist again, if you prefer - but it's the homeland of the Almighty himself. Quite a turnaround for such a small kingdom.
That he is not a particularly good god is immaterial. He's the one everyone's stuck with. Even if he is, unbeknownst to all, rather a boorish lout who never leaves the flat, resents both of his kids, and has tendencies toward mild domestic violence. "Do as I say, not as I do" and all that. When things are going badly, and you get the feeling that the world - or God, or whatever you believe in - has it out for you, or is playing some sort of cruel joke on you ... this is that version of God. And this is his design. To prank and taunt and make life generally frustrating. He created everything because ... well, because that's what you do when you're an all-powerful being. It's a cure for boredom, if nothing else.
But he harbors no love for his creations. He's a petty sadist who gets what joy he allows himself from arbitrarily bedeviling mankind, small annoyances and inexplicable ironies being his favored devices. He sits hunched over a small desk on an old desktop PC, in an otherwise empty room with filing-cabinet walls extending up toward a high vaulted ceiling. He's a hunt-and-peck typist (because of course he is) and sticks his tongue out in mischievous glee every time he comes up with a new fiendish joke to play on everyone. People of the world would no doubt be disappointed to discover that their creator is, for all intents and purposes, an Internet troll. A slovenly and nasty one, too - exactly the type we imagine when we accidentally scroll to a comment section or see the @-replies to a female celebrity's Twitter account.
Despite the boundless dominion wielded from that small, boxy computer terminal, the movie isn't any kind of comment on Internet culture or modern communication - it just makes for a handy launchpad to play with the forces that govern our lives, our decisions, our grand plans. Van Dormael's conceit - and Benoit Poelvoorde's personification of it - should not be considered much of a stretch, but rather a reflection of all the flimsy and trivial things we apply to a source of power (higher or otherwise), and the equally flimsy and trivial ways in which actual power can be applied and achieved. Ten-year-old Ea (Pili Groyne) is as conscious of such matters as anyone. As God's youngest, she's witnessed the spiteful fury toward her messianic older brother and the seething disregard for her mother. Her own punishment is that she's been ignored or disregarded her whole life. And for what?
Her resolution is ultimately the film's as well - a concerted effort to remove that power, or the illusion of it. So she breaks into Dad's office when he's passed out, promptly distributes the official date and time of death for everyone on the planet, then locks the computer (never to be accessed by Dad's perverse little fingers again*) and is on her way, out into the outside world for the first time.
* Even his power can only go so far, it seems. I can only assume God has some sort of tech support on his payroll, so perhaps he'll eventually be able to get back online and start having fun again. Then again, given what we know of his personality and the personalities of most computer support people, we can reasonably assume such a process will not go especially smoothly.
Just like that, the power he held over his subjects starts to dissipate. Without any uncertainty about their deaths hovering around them - replaced by an official timetable - they're free to live out their remaining days on more of a specific schedule, untethered to the standard cost/benefit analyses that come with more open-ended free will. Infuriated at the sudden absence of his most valuable trump card, God himself goes out into the streets of Brussels to find his daughter and, presumably, make her fix the mess she's created.
While The Brand New Testament's God is cruel, the film itself is not; it doesn't use Ea's gambit to play ironic, cosmic jokes on people, the way a darker comedy might. The rules are what everyone expects them to be once the death-date premise is set in motion. There are no fates worse than death here. So when a young thrill-seeker knows he has 62 years to live and proceeds to make a habit of jumping off tall buildings, the film doesn't try to punchline it by putting the poor guy in a permanent coma or making him a quadriplegic or any of the other tragic (but potentially funny) loopholes a film with a more sadistic streak might try to exploit. Van Dormael seems to know that would be more in line with the way his film's antagonist would behave. Testament is sweeter and more humane than that - and the various inexplicable ways that guy keeps being miraculously saved from death are funny enough without the necessity for a more twisted result.
Incidentally, those inclinations embody the film along lines of quality as well. Van Dormael proves himself much more adept at comically inclined sentiment than he is at satire. The film is at its best getting to know the individuals Ea has selected (essentially at random) to be her new apostles; its examination of their regrets and yearnings, their loneliness and confusion, is warm and light to the touch, each character made more endearing by the moments when they become objects of absurd comedy. There's the core group, among them Martine (Catherine Deneuve), a woman in a marriage doomed, if it wasn't already, by the fact that her husband knows he is going to outlive her by decades; Marc (Serge Larivière), a sex-industry connoisseur harboring more innocent sentimental desires; and Aurélie (Laura Verlinden), a one-armed woman who's seemingly given up on love until the day she catches a bullet ... in her prosthetic arm. But beyond that, there are various others who pop up for moments at a time, all reacting differently - some amusingly, some disturbingly - resulting in something occasionally reminiscent of Lorene Scafaria's Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
The film has a whole other dimension to it, a religious satire that fundamentally frames everything in the narrative. But the satire of The Brand New Testament is often agonizingly tepid - basic jokes and observations, ideas that don't go nearly far enough to make any impact. We see God at his computer establishing rules - like, for example, that the minute you get in the tub, the phone will ring; or that the other line at the grocery store will always move faster than the one you're in. These moments are mildly amusing at best. They are the international arthouse equivalent of Dad Jokes. There's a ring of truth to them, but they're just so obvious. It's as if Van Dormael unearthed the early tapes of some mediocre stand-up comic. He might as well begin each bit with, "Hey, did you ever notice how ... ?" Yes, Jaco, we noticed. Decades ago.
The possibilities are endless: All the frustrations, ironies, tragedies and accidents of mankind, and then some. Yet "the other line moves faster" is the sharpest he can come up with. It just seems like the film leaves way too much meat on the bone. It's not just obvious but safe - and that's the last word you'd use to describe his last stateside release, Mr. Nobody. There, he tried to do too much, and that overabundance of ambition was one of the film's charms; here, his canvas is still big, but he's either too timid or simply not clever enough. Even the performance of God is lukewarm. Poelvoorde is effectively buffoonish, but it's not a particularly interesting performance. He never gives us anything unexpected.
Those particular failures don't necessarily take away from the movie's other virtues. Van Dormael finds serenity and beauty in unexpected places. I was delighted to see that one sequence draws direct inspiration from one of the standout sequences in Take This Waltz - directed by Sarah Polley, one of the stars of his aforementioned Mr. Nobody. If that scene is any indication, we can at least conclude that his instincts are in the right place. If only his sense of observation could keep up.