Beggars and Believers in Brussels

Le tout nouveau testamentI wanted to start this review for The Brand New Testament with the words “God exists. He lives in Brussels and is a nuisance to his wife and daughter and every living thing,” but the movie poster beat me to it. God also creates Brussels in those first few minutes titled Genesis, finds it wanting and creates humans just to amuse himself by conjuring up laws such as the one about how your phone starts ringing just as you’ve started to soak in your bubble bath. It’s a comedy, but it has serious undertones, and not just religious ones.

topelementSince this is a Belgian-Luxembourgian-French co-production, God can only be played by the Belgian go-to comedian Benoît Poelvoorde. No matter which movie I’ve seen him in, he is never entirely serious and never just funny. Here, He has far too much fun torturing His creation. His submissive wife is played by Yolande Moreau; His son J. C. is missing, presumed dead, or maybe resurrected, nobody really knows. The TV is constantly on, but God has decreed that only sports must be on, except baseball, just to piss of His wife, who collects baseball cards. God’s ten-year old daughter Ea, however, wants to escape their mangy apartment and be a better, erm… goddess, girl, or person, than her father. She is sceptical of religion and dresses like a Goth. She is played by Pili Groyne, and she steals the whole movie.

brandnewtestamentdeneuvegorillaAfter a belting by her father, Ea also steals the keys to God’s office, a gigantic room without apparent roof on top of Brussel’s tallest skyscraper. Her plan is quite ingenious: There is an outdated computer on a desk in the middle of the room on which God creates his sadistic laws, but the walls are full of old-fashioned filing cabinets: one file for every human. She wants to add six apostles to the existing twelve because of her mother’s love of baseball, whose teams consist of 18 players, so she steals six random files from one of the millions of drawers. Then, to make God less important, she sends death dates to every living person. She lets the computer crash and leaves through the washing machine. This chapter is, of course, called Exodus.

BrandNewTestamentThe scenes where people get their death dates are beautifully done. Just think about it: you’re receiving a text message, telling you how much years, months, days, minutes, seconds you have left. You may get depressed, giving in to fate, or you may get frantic, trying to prove the prediction wrong. You might also make the best of everything, but the thing is: if you know when your time will be up, you won’t need God as much as before. At least that is Ea’s reasoning, and it seems to work.

There is the running gag of a young punk who celebrates the fact that he will die very old by jumping from windows and bridges because he knows he survives, but he does so mostly at the cost of others. The six apostles also get their message: there is the beautiful Aurélie, who cannot fall in love because she thinks that if she tells a guy that she is missing an arm, he will leave her. The moment when Ea makes Aurélie dream about her lost hand dancing and skating on an empty table is one of the most poetic moments at the movies in a long time. Martine (Catherine Deneuve) leaves her unfeeling husband and falls for a gorilla. Kudos to La Deneuve for tackling that difficult role with the usual grace and aplomb.

thebrandnewtestament03There is François, who shoots people at random, which is his way of playing God. There is Jean-Claude, a unassuming office worker who gets up and follows a flock of birds until he reaches the first icebergs. And there is Willy, a boy Ea’s age, who has only 58 days to live, but is content if he can wear a girl’s dress. And why not? All of them, with Ea’s help, get to do what they want. Aurélie and François find something in each other. There is also Marc, who, as a boy during his beach holidays, becomes obsessed with a beautiful girl his age, and turns to erotic cabaret and sad strip shows to hopelessly recapture that moment. His storyline is handled very much free from all the clichées, but what are the odds that you are going to meet the other girl from the same holiday while the two of you are synchronizing a porn movie and talking about Proust between takes? That was the only hackneyed scene in a movie where the screenplay successfully avoids many, many other such pitfalls. There is the idea that everyone of us has their own song, and Ea will listen and tell you what it is. It’s a throwaway moment, but it is one that I will remember for its poetry.

Meanwhile, God, with his arrogant omniscient frankness, pisses off a lot of people and is finally beaten up by a benign priest and thrown out of a church. And they all – the six new apostles, Ea, and Victor, the homeless guy who writes everything down for Ea, thereby writing The Brand New Testament of the title – they all end up on the beach, which is the place to go, apparently, when your time runs out. There is a surprise ending, but let me tell you that it is perfectly stringent, and it’s beautiful and kitschy at the same time. And it’s high time His daughter had her say.

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