Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Dec 12, 2016 5:26 pm 
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French with a Belgian accent sounds like Swedish

The idea that God exists in Brussels (and is played by the busy Belgian film and stage actor Benoît Poelvoorde) is only the beginning of a surreal, darkly humorous film. God's young daughter Ea (Pili Groyne) revolts and runs away. The film's conceit is that if she sends out everyone's exact life expectancy to them via text message, they'll no longer live in fear. (Says who?) God's wife is an inarticulate doofus played by the predictably goofy Yolande Moreau, also Belgian. The cast is a little honor roll of notable Belgian French actors, including the popular François Damiens, as one of Ea's "apostles," as shse sets about to reverse her father'work. Her brother (David Murgia), "J-C" (a bum she pals around with thinks she means Jean-Claude van Damme - a nod to one of Belgium's favorite sons), has been reduced to a statuette up on a dresser, who comes to life only for a minute to give Ea some advice.

Before we get there, we observe what a boorish lower middle class schlub God is, hanging around in shabby PJ's and robe over wife-beater T shirt, terrifying wife and Ea with his mean tirades. We get a new version of Genesis. Actually he created not Eden but Brussels, filling it with so-so CGI wild animals. Then came Adam and Eve, wandering around in rectangular digital fig leaves. Soon many generations were spawned, same as in the old version. God makes up an endless series of "laws" issued via computer from his big storeroom, designed to make life miserable, stuff like toast will always fall jam side down, the other line will always move faster than the one you're in, and so on. Then Ea sends out the Deethgate messages and escapes into the world (presumably Brussels) via a washing machine that leads to a laundromat.

As Ea wanders around hanging with the bum, Viktor (Marco Lorenzini), because he can read and write, and so can set down the gospels according to her six additional "apostles" chosen to fill the gaps in Leonardo's "Last Supper," the movie turns into a series of little stories whose dry humor and episodic nature recall something Swedish - namely the films of Roy Andersson. What the film loses in continuity it gains in originality of conceits and variety of characters. Each person is a study in fate vs. free will that asks the old question (and writing class theme): what would you do if you faced imminent death. Except for some, death is comfortably far off, and for others, so soon they have barely time to get dressed.

It's a pretty random group, some of whom are going to fall in love.. A pretty woman, Aurélie (Laura Verlinden), has to live with an artificial arm due to a freak subway accident. François Damiens is a life-insurance salesman turned would be serial killer. He tries to kill Aurélie and then falls in love with her when he fails. Marc (Serge Lariviere) is an "obsessed," a sex maniac, fixated on a summer crush, a German girl he meets when they're both grown middle aged and are voicing porno flicks, and goes home with her. They lie down together and sleep. A loveless housewife, Martine (Catherine Deneuve, not Belgian, but famous) ditches her husband for a gorilla; her scene in bed with this animal is among several that ma yearn anthology status. There are touching and also visually striking moments, even if the connecting tissue sometimes splinters.

In Variety Peter Debruge cites Van Dormael's previously demonstrated preoccupations with God's creation, his wealth of ideas (most notable here in the first part), and many sources he borrows from for the individual anecdotes, which include Belgian gender film Ma vie en rose, Nagisa Oshima's Max mon amour, Sean Ellis' short Cashback, and the French farce A Slightly Pregnant Man. All are little-known works, Debruge suggests, so the steals won't be noted. And Van Dormael steals from himself too, but his Toto the Hero also isn't well known, though it was, Debruge notes, a source for Amélie. And Debruge also recounts the director's difficult recent times, losing his composer-collaborator (hence here using little but the linking bit of Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals" with an ironic meaning and other, quite pretty, classical excerpts), and has had meager critical or commercial success, though that was reversed with this film's acceptance at Cannes.

The Brand New Testament has jolts of taste and tone and moments that verge on blasphemy or outrage, and it can wear out one's patience rather early. This is not true of the delicately melancholy and wonderfully imagined scenes of Roy Andersson, which require patience but more fully reward it. His 2007 You the Living, which I saw in connection with the Rome Festival unforgettably dubbed into Italian, was little seen in any version, but the next opus, the 2014, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence met with equal critical accolades and was also more widely screened. With this film, Van Dormael may be coming in for a similar improvement. Though he lacks Andersson's delicate sweetness and distinctively precise mise-en-scène, his curiosity, fantasy, and rage may strike familiar chords.

The Brand New Testament/Le tout nouveau testament, 113 mins., debuted 17 May 2015 at Cannes in Directors Fortnight; over a dozen other international festivals, releases in many countries. US limited release 9 Dec. 2016; S.F. Bay Area 16 Dec.

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