The Brand New Testament
(le Tout Nouveau Testament)
Joco Van Dormael (2015 Bel) Benoit Poelvoorde, Pili Groyne, Catherine
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 10 May 2016; ticket (matinee screening) £8.25
I was wondering before checking in to see Van Dormael’s movie whether it would be a black 21st century comedy in the style of Belvaux’ 1992 movie Man Bites Dog? Would Brand New Testament wrap up, implicate me in another dark Belgium vision of European society? Belvaux’ movie was a bleak vision of 20thst century man but justified itself by its truth commitment and unflinching camera that pointed to the consequences for lives colonised by the invasion of the media.
In the age of Facebook, instagram, twitter what insights would Van Dormael’s film open up to probe our interconnected narcissistic culture? Questions!
Questions largely unasked so thereby unanswered by the Brand New Testament.
The movie starts with a dystopian premise. Van Dormael invents his own version of ‘God’ in the form of a blue collar slob who controls the world through his computer. God works out of a virtual subprime apartment located far from anywhere. In his omnipotence God spends ‘time’ torturing humanity by inventing malevolent laws; in his downtime he abuses his wife, the Goddess, and his daughter Ea. Ea finally decides she’s had “enough” and revenges herself on dad (God). She logs onto dad’s computer and texts ‘everyone’ (at least everyone with a smart phone) with the exact hour of their death, including a helpful countdown so they can keep tabs on their progress to hour zero. After disabling the computer she escapes down a worm hole to Earth to get away and to try to rectify some of the bad dad has done. Just like bro JC.
At this point, rather early in the scenario, the the film breaks down, unable to sustain the weight of its own internal logic or to handle the critical implication of the death countdown for human and social relations. The count down to death is an idea beyond the imaginative scope of Van Dormael’s film to handle. Van Dormael doesn’t have the conceptual resources to represent this idea. His character God is vexed that Ea’s actions in revealing to people the hour of their death “…has taken them out of his power, cut out the fun.” But the film never seems to take this idea on. Van Dormael’s script opts for his particular subjects to revert to kind of infantilism, death releases the 100 things to do before you die fantasy. Hence the need for Polyanna to appear as the girly amanuensis. Otherwise, outside the little cameos that comprise the movie life mainly goes on as before.
Van Dormael’s main expressive tools are not conceptual but literal depictions of ideas event situations. So he has recourse to SFX and digital tech to show us actual things rather than to represent concepts filmicaly.
Abandoning the conceptual situation, the death countdown, it has proposed, the Brand New Testament concentrates on Ea who becomes a Pollyanna figure selecting 6 people she will help out on their way to their appointment with death. She hears their inner music (biased towards the Baroque composers as presumably there was limited budget for expensive copyright clearance), and encourages them to fulfil themselves before they die thereby revealing the movie’s cheap ambition to betray European scepticism and embrace an all American ethos of dream fulfilment: the middle class ambition of overcoming. Things to do before you die, ensure you get Eurimages distribution.
The Brand New Testament as it progresses loses cohesion and becomes a medley of parallel cut disconnected events and situations.
There is also another level at which the film betrays a disturbed level of filmic consciousness.
Although the ‘God’ premise and the ‘death’ premise both call up the idea of a whole (the God idea the death idea affect everyone) Van Dormael fails to connect with any posited whole. The society we see in his scenario is represented only by white people (mostly middle class). Blacks, immigrants, Moslems, Jews are all absent. Completely absent. For a movie that sets out to encompass the whole of society this is a strange omission. It would have been a funny had Van Dormeul’s ‘God’ invention just been a god of white folks. Brand New Testament in this situation could have been a requiem for white man society. But this does not seem to have been the idea. We just have another disconnected film unrelated to European ‘society’ in which we live, because most of the people are simply ignored. Non ‘whites’ written out of the script probably because it was felt to be too complex to include them and simpler to revert to Pollyanna scenario. Whites only.
As Brand new Testament progresses it resorts to ever increasing use of SFX, the digital filling in for the lamentable lack of actual interest. The film finishes with a sort of soggy biscuit finale where the Goddess (God’s wife) inadvertently stops the death countdown and invents Patterned skies instead of clouds, making everyone feel happy. What patterned skies might do for global warming is a moot point, but what is certain is that Van Dormael ends with a complete cop out to the soft porn of political correctness. Adrin Neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org