Jaco van Dormael is no doubt one of the most respected Belgian directors on the international scene, but his output is very scarce. I'm not his biggest fan, but I did love Mr. Nobody, so when The Brand New Testament [Le Tout Nouveau Testament] got announced I was excited to see if van Dormael would be able to maintain his momentum. Somehow I never got to see the film though and forgot about it altogether, until last week that is. As we're currently experiencing a traditional summer drought, it was the ideal moment to finally catch up with van Dormael's latest.
My perception of van Dormael (and for the longest time, Belgian cinema) was largely shaped by a school-approved theater visit to The Eighth Day. I hated the film, never seen it again since. It wasn't until I decided to give Mr. Nobody a chance that I rediscovered van Dormael and found a director who had a lot more to offer than the trademark social drama that seems to be our main cinematic export. I was particularly happy to find out that The Brand New Testament continues the direction that was taken with Mr. Nobody.
When reading up on The Brand New Testament, I noticed that many people are very eager to compare it to the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. These comparisons aren't exactly unfounded, but van Dormael isn't really new to this style of film making. I haven't seen Toto le Héros myself (van Dormael's first, released in 1991), but even back then his particular directorial style seemed to be present already. Whatever the case, Jeunet isn't actively directing films anymore and I welcome a style that combines excessive details and charm with a slightly darker, playful edge.
The story revolves around Ea, daughter of God. She is locked into a tiny apartment in Brussels, where God goes about his daily business, annoying people with an ever-growing list of pranks turned into universal law. Tired of her meaningless existence and fed up with her dad's antisocial behavior, she calls in the help of her brother (that would be Jesus) in order to escape her current predicament. Jesus discloses a way out of the apartment and advises Ea to find her a band of six apostles. Before she leaves though, she notifies everyone on Earth of their time of death and trashes God's computer in the process, so he can't reverse the situation. Angered by his daughter's betrayal, God sets after Ea to make things right again.
Jaco van Dormael doesn't have access to Hollywood-sized budgets, so he has to make every single cent count. The CG isn't always that convincing, luckily a lot is accomplished with practical effects, smart camera work and exquisite styling. The camera work is very stark, slick use of color and lighting adds a lot of atmosphere to the visuals and the editing makes for a nicely paced film. It all adds up to a charming and appealing-looking package. That's quite a feat, especially if you've ever wandered around Brussels (which is not the prettiest of cities).
The soundtrack consist mostly of French chansons and warm, rustic music. It's no doubt one of the reasons why people are prone to compare this film to the work of Jeunet, because there's a definite Amélie vibe to the music. It sounds slightly more modern, but the sound and timbre are extremely recognizable. That's not a bad thing mind, it does help to establish the intended charm and it fits perfectly with the rest of the film.
Overall, the cast is very solid, but there are two clear stand-out performances here. First of all there is Benoît Poelvoorde, by far one of Belgium's greatest acting talents. Poelvoorde's interpretation is God is perfect and inimitable. A sleazy, grueling but strangely sympathetic character you'll love to hate. More surprising is the superb performance of Pili Groyne as Ea. Directing kids is never an easy task, but she plays her role perfectly and steals every scene she's in. There's a sizable part for Catherine Deneuve and Jeunet fans can look forward to Yolande Moreau, but both fail to upstage the lead characters.
The first half hour is pretty fantastic, but once Ea starts her quest to gather the six apostles the film does get a little repetitive. Each apostle gets his own 10-minute segment, which all pan out in a very similar way. There's definitely enough creativity and originality in each segment separately, but the succession makes things a bit too predictable, especially the latter ones. It's only a minor quibble and it's quickly forgotten once the finale starts, but it was just about big enough to pull me out of the film for a short while.
A few minor nuisances aside, The Brand New Testament is a smart, funny and original film that charms all the way through. The direction is steadfast, the film looks gorgeous, sports a neat soundtrack and has a billion little touches that inspire joy. Comparisons to Jeunet are understandable but the work of van Dormael is distinctive enough and it's not like there are that many other films alike. The Brand New Testament is another sublime entry in his oeuvre, one that makes we want to check and re-evaluate his older work.