God lives in Belgium and he’s not very nice.
In Jaco Van Dormael's clever, redemptive satire "The Brand New Testament" God wears a bathrobe, drinks beer, pecks at a computer and takes devilish delight in irritating his creations. His 10-year-old daughter is fed up with his antics and calamities. She runs away from their strange heaven to gather her own disciples and write new gospels to heal the world’s wounded souls. Her brother, JC, who most of the time is a statue on a shelf, hops down for a moment and gives his blessing.
“The Brand New Testament” rearranges notions of faith with a secularist’s vision that good dwells in all of us and happiness doesn’t require dogma. It is a modern fable about finding refuge amid the clamor and drawing meaning from one another in a world that is at once neurotic and aloof to the hushed and often sublime music playing through our lives.
God’s daughter, Ea, escapes to Earth through a washing machine to gather six new disciples, a melancholic, despairing bunch that includes Martine (played by Catherine Deneuve), a rich, neglected wife who takes a gorilla as a lover. The disciples' encounters with Ea lift their veils of isolation and they find new loves, ambitions and a sense that life, as fleeting as it is, can be divine and resonate in shared humanity.
The film toys with creation myths and echoes with European absurdist sensibilities; it is as irreverent as it is inviting, and imagines a world where God, a tyrant, is replaced by his daughter and his wife, a whimsical woman who roams heaven (a disheveled apartment) in a housecoat. His wife takes over the computer and summons her vision of the planet: a sky woven with embroidery, a place where people bloom into who they are without fear of reprisal or judgment.
“The Brand New Testament” has been nominated for a Golden Globe and has been shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination for best foreign-language film. A husky man with a graying beard and a playful, expectant gaze, Van Dormael, whose other films include “Mr. Nobody” starring Jared Leto, has been showing his movie this week at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which ends on Monday.
This is an edited conversation with Van Dormael about life, Alice in Wonderland and a Spaniard inside a gorilla costume.
What are you saying about God in this film?
I don’t believe in God, so for me it’s more like a fairy tale. I take the story line of the Bible and the New Testament, but I don’t think it’s about religion or even God. But in religion there is this absence of women and power of men. The film is more about society and family. It’s about domination that you have to obey. It’s about fear, punishment. But what the little girl brings is that you don’t have to be afraid.
God’s daughter and wife offer an alternative to the paternalistic designs that have shaped religion, arts and so much else.
I had a Catholic education as a kid and I was surprised that no women said anything. But in my family my mother was speaking a lot and [now] my daughters are speaking a lot too. They’re rebels. That was the beginning of the story: What if ... ?
God becomes irrelevant in the film once people are reminded of their mortality by receiving text messages giving the exact dates of their deaths. That’s a sobering revelation. What does that suggest about religion and our time on this Earth?
People remember they’re mortals. I think religion can give strength to some people. Myself, I find I’m more strong with doubts. I love doubting. The questions are more interesting than the answers. I love to make films that ask questions but don’t give answers. There’s a saying that religion and film have one thing in common: Both try to make you believe that life could have meaning. But even if it doesn’t have meaning, this being alive is a great experiment.
There’s a whimsical quality to the "new" gospels as the daughter seeks her disciples. What were you trying to create here?
It’s a sort of exotic structure like Alice in Wonderland or Don Quixote. You’re not waiting for the end of the story to understand. You’re in the middle of the path smelling the grass.
Each of the daughter’s disciples is damaged in some way: physical, emotional, psychological. What did these characters represent?
We were looking for magnificent losers. That life is not for them anymore. They will not be happy. There’s a sentence in there that says if happiness was a house the biggest room would be the waiting room. They’ve spent all their lives in the waiting room. The human brain can put us into little prisons that say my life is nothing else. But [Ea] opens a little box and says you can be anything you want. You have a life and a love that’s not in the catalog of the usual. It’s about strange couples. They don’t fit but that have beautiful love stories.
The most provocative gospel story features Catherine Deneuve’s love affair with a gorilla. Her life is so devoid of joy that she finds it in the most unexpected place. Was it fun to play with this idea?
Yes, it’s a strange story. She finds the gorilla more protective than her husband. She [Deneuve] was totally open to it. She’s a fantastic actress. There was a Spanish guy in the gorilla suit and two other Spanish guys were moving the face with a little motor. She was laughing all the time. She was saved by a gorilla.
Has the film drawn any criticism from churches or organized religion?
I was really surprised. In Belgium and Switzerland, the websites of the church said they propose that people go and see the film because it’s interesting and [followers] could discuss the place of the women in the church. The miracle of God’s daughter is, I can make you dream. I can make you fall in love. All those little things that make us feel alive.