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Just a Slob Like One of Us

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Le Pacte

MOVIE REVIEW
The Brand New Testament (2016)

Here is a movie that makes two textbook mistakes: It takes a wildly clever setup and fails utterly to deliver on its own premise; and does so in a visual language lifted wholesale from other, better films. Either one of these faults would be forgivable, but to combine them puts “The Brand New Testament” at the level of a student film — though it’s unlikely any student director would have dared treating Catherine Deneuve like this.

The premise: God (Benoît Poelvoorde) and his wife (Yolande Moreau, reprising her part as the nervous cleaning woman from “Amélie”) live in a crappy tower block in Brussels. Their miserable marriage has produced their famous son, but also a 10-year-old daughter, Ea (Pili Groyne). Ea (which is a two-syllable name) has had it with her bastard of a father, so she hacks his files and texts everyone on Earth the amount of time he or she has left to live. She then breaks out of the apartment for the first time in her life and descends to the city streets to begin her stand against God.

This is a really good setup, right? Especially considering that, when God loses his temper, he is perfectly happy to smash in the door to his daughter’s bedroom and whip her with his belt. And the idea that everyone on Earth with a cell phone suddenly gets a lifetime countdown clock is a wonderful one. But rather than delving into some amusing or thought-provoking bigger issues, director Jaco van Dormael (who cowrote the script with Thomas Gunzig) goes in some problematic directions instead.

Since she knows nothing of humanity, Ea decides that she needs some apostles. The entire middle section of the film drops Ea’s revenge quest for their life stories. They are a physically disabled woman (Laura Verlinden), an anxious old man (Didier de Neck), a creep (Serge Larivière), a would-be murderer (François Damiens), a gender-questioning abused child (Romain Gelin) and a woman who falls in love with a circus gorilla (Ms. Deneuve). There are literally scenes of one of the most talented actresses in cinematic history spooning with a man in a gorilla suit. To call this movie’s sexual politics a retrograde throwback is an insult to our ancestors, but they are a progressive utopia compared to the racial ones: The only people of color are nurses, thieves, prostitutes or punch lines. With the current climate in Belgium, this is a nasty reminder of how important representation is. The shots of one of the characters seeing children in a park through his rifle sights are also pretty hard to take, but fortunately they are nothing more than a joke — not that anyone is laughing.

The visual language of the film is lifted directly either from early Jeunet (“Delicatessen” has been an incredibly influential movie, hasn’t it?) or current Gondry; which means that charming sequences of giraffes roaming through empty city streets or figurines coming to life for a helpful chat make you wish you were watching those movies instead. And the single best sequence, between God and a priest in a street refuge, sidelines Ea and her quest completely. So what is the point of this movie? Possibly only to show how hard it is, even with an excellent cast and a terrific initial idea, to deliver a really good one.

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