Few films in the early 1990s were as brisk and ingenious as the Belgian comedy Toto the Hero, in which an elderly man, certain that he was switched at birth and raised by the wrong parents, looks back ruefully over the life that should have been his. No one would blame the writer-director Jaco Van Dormael for feeling the same way about his career. Toto was acclaimed by Terry Gilliam, who once said he would die to make a picture like that. Its imaginative flourishes were recycled widely. Without it there would have been no Amélie, no mystical-plastic-bag scene in American Beauty, and countless whimsical commercials and music videos would have had to steal from elsewhere. But Van Dormael himself is rarely mentioned any more. Such is the risk of being influential but not widely seen.
His fourth feature film, The Brand New Testament, starts from a bold proposition: God (Benoît Poelvoorde) is an ill-tempered, unshaven slob holed up in a dingy apartment with his downtrodden wife (Yolande Moreau) and their ten-year-old daughter, Ea (Pili Groyne). He hides away in his office, wreaking havoc on mankind. When he isn’t malevolent, he is petty, devising rules to drive human beings mad: the toast will always land jam-side-down when dropped, the neighbouring supermarket queue will always move faster – and other truisms beloved of mediocre observational comedians.
Tired of his cruelty, Ea undermines her father’s power by breaking into His computer and sending everyone on Earth the exact time and date of their death by text message, sparking a mass throwing of caution to the wind. Then she follows in her brother’s footsteps and sets off to find new apostles to spread the word of God. Her big idea is to get each of these apostles to talk about their own life. They include Aurélie (Laura Verlinden), a plaintive woman with a prosthetic arm, a trans child named Willy (Romain Gelin) and a housewife, Martine (Catherine Deneuve), who experiences romantic fulfilment with a gorilla.
Van Dormael’s style and themes have not changed noticeably over the years. The zany predominates (an animated fish pops up to sing “La Mer”) and his structural preference continues to be for the précis and montage. The most effective part of the film shows people’s reactions to receiving their date of death. One vignette, featuring the director himself, will delight anyone incensed by promiscuous users of mobile phones.
Ea’s narration provides a run-down of each person’s characteristics in place of characterisation (“He spoke to her the way you speak to a workhorse you take pity on”), a style also found in Wes Anderson’s films from The Royal Tenenbaums onwards. Lightning-fast recaps of whole life stories win out over sustained scenes. In the era of listicles, perhaps Van Dormael’s time has finally come; he could be the perfect director for the BuzzFeed generation.
Then again, there are clear literary urges in the screenplay, which he co-wrote with Thomas Gunzig. Aurélie is said to possess “a laugh like mother-of-pearl beads cascading down a staircase”, while a man has “skin like that of an old viper waiting for a glass of blood at a deserted bar”. Another character’s voice sounds “like 30 men cracking walnuts” – cue a pointless cutaway to 30 men cracking walnuts. This sort of writing in cinema tends toward the superfluous. There’s no need to describe what we can see and hear for ourselves.
The Brand New Testament is a fundamentally nice film but niceness is incompatible with the sort of black comedy it shows every sign of wanting to be. A running joke features a man cheerfully hurling himself from balconies and out of planes, safe in the knowledge that his number won’t be up for many years to come. Van Dormael is far too sweet to point out that this reckless chap could well end up paralysed long before his death, and that perhaps his own characters should be careful what they wish for. There are scenes here, such as one showing God being strangled by a priest, that might have had deep intellectual bite. Instead, the film and its upbeat score place the emphasis on keeping the audience smiling rather than thinking.
This article appears in the 13 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster