The Brand New Testament, as its premise, poses a question everyone has pondered: What would you do with the rest of your life, if you knew exactly when it was going to end? Would you continue as normal or drop everything to live exactly as you’ve always wanted? The film considers this question in the most straightforward possible way, by allowing everybody in the world access to its answer. It is a film somehow frank and surreal at once, combining the familiar, mundane feelings of despair and solitude with bizarre Magritte-esque imagery and absurd situations. The tone is sweet and melancholy and also, amazingly, silly. It both dwells on the inevitable sadness of each person’s life and rejoices in the beauty of the world, all while considering the roles religion plays and doesn’t play in each person’s life.
The Brand New Testament (or Le Tout Nouveau Testament in the original French) follows Ea (Pili Groyne), the 10-year-old daughter and second child of God (Benoit Poelvoorde) and his wife (Yolande Moreau). In this story, “God was already bored” at the beginning of time. So he created the world in order to give himself playthings, designed man in his image just so that he knew best how to ruin their days. He only causes good things to happen in order to make the bad things he does feel worse for the people he’s doing them to. He keeps his wife and daughter locked up in an apartment in Brussels, where his wife cooks and cleans and admires her collection of baseball cards and his daughter wears heavy makeup, sulks, and dreams of escaping.
With some advice from her older brother, JC, who, though dead, comes to her through a porcelain figure in her room, she run away into Brussels where she intends to find six apostles to write a Brand New Testament. She decides, however, that she has no interest in having anyone write about her, so her intention is for the testament to be about the apostles themselves, for them to tell the stories of their own realities and lives. Before she goes, she hacks into her father’s computer and gives everyone on the planet access to the knowledge of their own death dates, which appear on their cell phones as countdowns. This, as a dismayed God explains, means that he no longer has any power over any of them; they know when they’re going to die, so they’re no longer at his mercy and no longer fear him.
It’s an interesting way to set up the film. Ea doesn’t just step into the lives of the six apostles and change them, but instead finds them as they have already been irreversibly changed. Each of them have different amounts of time to live, some years, some only weeks or months; each person responds differently to the information. Ea exists almost as a narrator, a link between the characters, perhaps sometimes an illuminator. But for the most part, she is not the star of the show, and she doesn’t want to be. She can do some things her brother Jesus was able to do, like walking on water or multiplying loaves of bread (which she demonstrates with a ham sandwich, demurring at any praise for this skill, since sometimes there’s no ham in the second sandwich). But she also has skills of her own, like hearing the inner music of the people she’s with and being able to give people dreams. They’re miracles in their own way, allowing her, and us, to understand the characters better.
The color palette of the film isn’t subtle, but it’s still effective. Ea steps into a world of drab grays and browns, as if everything was once bright and shiny but has faded. In some scenes, it feels as if a light has gone out in the room, like half of every person’s face is in shadow. Ea steps into the scenes and something seems to shift and alter in them. Though the colors sometimes stay the same, there’s a sense that someone has drawn back the curtains, allowing the characters to feel the sun on their faces for the first time. In other places, the characters physically move out of one location and into another, from a bedroom decorated all in black and white to a circus, from a dark office cubicle to a bench in the park.
The film plays with visual cues a lot and doesn’t shy away from the surreal. At first, we see these moments only in dreams: a woman who lost her arm in an accident watching her missing hand dance on a table, the ghost of a fish eaten for dinner floating around a kitchen singing “La Mer.” But these moments quickly move into the waking world. Someone hugs his own reflection through a mirror. The sky bursts into a kaleidoscope of flowers. A man conducts a flock of birds through song and flight while walking through the mountains. Daisies float in the air around the head of someone who has just fallen in love for the first time. They feel reminiscent of Biblical miracles, mostly in that, even in the 21st century, no one has seen anything like them before. Like the apostles of Christ, Ea’s followers are witness to the miracles, there to be affected by them and to record them for others to know.
As miracles go, Ea could be seen as a somewhat ineffective messiah. She does little, besides talking, to actually affect the outcomes of any of the lives she’s touched. Her persuasiveness stems from the fact that she is so separate from the people she meets. She is unable to cry, something she laments, and she collects the tears of those around her; she seems to know that this is an irreconcilable difference between herself and her apostles. But she asks questions that never seem to occur to anyone else, and pushes people to do the things they want to do but are scared to. A man sitting on a bench in the park (where he plans to stay until he dies, no longer interested in spending any of his time at his thankless job) wonders why a bird in the park just stays there when it could fly anywhere. Ea translates when the bird says in return, “I wonder the same about you,” sending man and bird on a journey to see the world together.
Somehow, this film manages to fit in moments of silliness amongst its profundity. God, who of course can’t just let Ea go out into the world unpunished, especially when she has crashed his computer system so he can no longer amuse himself by making everyone’s lives miserable, follows her into Brussels. Once out in the world that he has designed but never experienced for himself, he deals with a variety of troubles of his own making: he’s beaten up by hoodlums, drops a piece of bread with jam (which he stole from a child) so that it lands jam side down on the floor, ends up in the line in the soup kitchen that isn’t moving as fast as the line beside it. It has an oddly Home Alone feel, as if the universe is the Kevin McCallister to God’s burglar: he injures himself, or gets himself injured, ends up dirty and hungry and bedraggled, and in trying to follow Ea across a river when she walks away from him on the water, takes a confident step out and falls right into it. All of this happens to the usual “womp-womp” of a tuba. Not only is Ea out to make this world less terrible, but the God that made it so terrible also gets what’s coming to him.
The film manages to not come across as anti-religion, even as it repeatedly rejects God. It’s a reflection on mortality, more than anything, on the idea that this is the paradise we’ve been given and that it’s up to us to make the most of it while we can, to understand and appreciate the little “miracles” of each day. Going to be with God is not going to paradise, as Ea points out from experience. At the same time, the film refuses to neglect all the ways the world is ugly, that people are ugly, that God himself can be cruel and hateful.
As a meditation on a 21st century messiah, it works surprisingly well. Just as Jesus Christ is revered not only as the son of God but as a man who lived without sin despite the temptations before him, Ea dwells on her own humanity and is mostly treated as any 10-year-old girl might be. She laments the things she does not know, and she is quick to learn them when she can. She rejects her own divinity, pointing out how many things she herself has not done: eaten an apple, seen the sea, cried. In her naiveté about the world, in her first moments in Brussels, she rejoices in rain and eats a fish burger out of a dumpster, then is promptly sick. Her innocence and lack of experience mean that nothing surprises her, and nothing disgusts her; she is free of judgment and therefore able to encourage her apostles to seek the things that will make them happy, even in the cases of odd sexual cravings or the desire to kill people with a rifle.
In the end, the film does not reject the divine, but it rejects a divinity that has no basis in the actual lived experiences of the people it governs. The character of God is cruel and unfeeling, someone who has no interest in human beings as anything but a means of amusement. Even as he begins to meet them, he feels no attachment to them and only sees them as a means to an end, an opportunity to get back to where he was before his daughter betrayed him. It is the humanity of his children that makes them successful as miracle makers and messiahs, not their connection to God. It is the very desire to be among humans, to understand and to help them, that makes them worth following. They are undoing God’s work as much as they are doing it.
Elizabeth Brei grew up in Chicagoland, once worked at Disney World and has a cat named Moo. She holds an MFA from San Diego State University and can sometimes be found on Twitter @peachchild grumbling about kids these days or talking about Sailor Moon.