Niall Anderson discovers God alive, unwell and living in Brussels in Jaco Van Dormael’s new comedy
Belgium is a country I don’t think about very often, except when I’m in it, and even then it can be a struggle. It is the effective capital of the European Union, but recently went 541 days without a government of its own. It was a major seat of empire for the best part of a century, but seems almost to have stumbled into colonialism (Leopold II established Belgium’s colony in the Congo over the head of his government). Culturally, Belgium exists to the world as an occasional flash of genius, or as a dedicated exporter of talented people to bigger stages in bigger countries. Sometimes its very existence stands as a joke: in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, ‘Belgium’ is the rudest word in the universe and outlawed everywhere except on earth.
Jaco Van Dormael’s latest film The Brand New Testament seems to engage with this atmosphere of cultural provisionality when, in its opening scenes, it announces that God (Benoît Poelvoorde) created Brussels on the First Day. He did so out of pure boredom and spite, and in the millennia that have followed He has doubled down on the spite, devising innumerable rules and laws just to keep people in a pliant state of misery. If your toast falls jam side down, that’s God. If your crockery smashes just as you’re moving it from the sink to the draining board, that’s God. The film has nothing to say about rain on your wedding day, or a free ride when you’re already late, but this is clearly the sort of level God works at.
God has a family living with him in his cramped and fetid Brussels apartment. He has an unnamed wife (Yolande Moreau) who spends her days stitching tapestries of significant historic events. There’s Jesus, of course, whose travelling ministry two thousand years ago God seems to regard as a bit of an embarrassment. And then there’s Ea (Pili Groyne), God’s daughter, who is ten, inquisitive, and completely opposed to her father’s low-level trolling of the human race.
The plot, such as it is, kicks off when Ea downloads the predicted date of death of every living person and texts it to them. One man, discovering he has 62 years left to live, decides he’s just going to jump off tall structures and see what happens (a neat recurring joke). Another, having spent 40 loveless years going mad in the same office, decides he’s going to row to the Arctic and study birds. The futility of war is revealed in an instant and everyone lays down their arms. Mostly, people get a bit depressed and moony. God is not happy about any of this at all.
There are some nice ideas in this sequence, but also a huge problem with tone. How funny is it, for instance, to watch a woman receive the news she is to die in two minutes and then slapstick her way into it? How are we supposed to take the sight of an elderly woman realising she will die before the disabled boy she cares for, and resolve to smother him with a pillow? How are we supposed to take the sight of God whipping His daughter with a belt for breaking into His office?
If you’ve seen any of Van Dormael’s previous films (which include Toto The Hero and The Eighth Day), you’ll have experienced this odd whiplash effect between the whimsical and the vicious, the shallowly observed and the voyeuristic. Van Dormael has clearly taken some of these criticisms on board – voyeurism is an explicit theme in The Brand New Testament – but it’s frankly remarkable that in the 25 years since Toto, he doesn’t seem to have got any better at it.
The Brand New Testament is gooey at its core and lazy with it. Escaping from God’s wrath, Ea flees into urban Brussels through a tunnel at the back of a washing machine. Ea has never left the apartment before, so how does she know this escape route is there? We don’t know. As she wanders the city collecting life stories for her New Testament, she also collects people’s tears in a little vial. Where did this vial come from? To what use does Ea put the tears? We never find out. Ea begins to play matchmaker between the lost souls she meets, based on the music that their hearts play. The contract killer whose music is Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ is matched with a sad amputee who music is Handel’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’. Does this come to anything? Not really, no. Somewhere in the middle of all this Catherine Deneuve leaves her husband for a gorilla. Actually, she breaks the gorilla out of a circus (nobody seems to mind) and later has entirely human babies with it.
It should be clear by now both that there’s a lot going on in The Brand New Testament, and that almost none of it makes sense. There’s almost certainly a sly joke here at the incoherence of the actual New Testament, but it’s not a joke that illuminates or elucidates anything. If the idea is that life could be lived a lot better if our minds were more open, well, fine – but I’m not sure you need to go as far as interspecies sex to make that point. Nor is having God deported as a failed asylum seeker quite the satirical coup the film thinks it is; the joke residing entirely in the fact that He’s sent to Uzbekistan, which is obviously some sort of shithole.
Still, I suppose it’s instructive to realise that Belgians have their own Belgium – a place they just don’t know what to do with it and need to dismiss as a joke. The Brand New Testament is an insular and hateful little trifle, an encyclopaedia of the director’s long-standing obsessions and little else. It’s a total Belgium.
The Brand New Testament is out now on DVD.