Tag Archives: Benoit Poelvoorde

CAPSULE: THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT (2015)

Le Tout Nouveau Testament

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Pili Groyne, Benoît Poelvoorde, Yolande Moreau,

PLOT: God, who’s something of a jerk, lives in an inaccessible high-rise apartment in Brussels; rebelling from his authoritarian control, his 10-year old daughter hacks his computer and leaks humanity’s death dates, then goes to Earth to write a new Gospel.

Still from The Brand New Testament (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In the earlier days of this site, a movie like The Brand New Testament would easily have been shortlisted as a candidate. But with available slots on the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made shrinking, the field grows more competitive by the week. In a way, with two entries already on the List, Jaco Van Dormael is a victim of his own success—and this high-concept comedy is not as weird as Toto the Hero or Mr. Nobody, although the Catherine Deneuve bestiality subplot nearly puts him over the top one more time.

COMMENTS: Since nothing can come from Nothing, God seems to be an ontological necessity. Yet, our fatally flawed world of starving children, male nipples, and Kanye singles argues against the existence of a perfect, benevolent Supreme Being. There is one way to reconcile this seeming paradox, however. What if God exists, but He’s not a pure and loving spirit: in fact, he’s not only imperfect, but a mildly sadistic bastard? Such a God would perfectly accord the necessity for a First Cause with our experience of life on this planet as frequently annoying, sometimes torturous, and genuinely tragic—besides explaining the whole “made in His image” thing.

Jaco van Dormael takes this whimsical philosophical proposition as the basis for his fantasy The Brand New Testament, a congenially blasphemous lark that winkingly rewrites Christian theology to tweak human nature. This God—played with wicked gusto by a perpetually peeved Benoît Poelvoorde in a ratty bathrobe—is a petty tyrant who delights not only in crashing planes but in setting up universal laws of annoyance, such as the cosmic rule that toast must always fall to the floor jam side down. So intolerable is his reign of terror that his eldest son, J.C., ran away from home to slum around Earth, embarrassing his father with his hippie antics. (“The kid said a lot of stuff on the spur of the moment,” God explains to a scandalized priest). J.C.’s sister, Ea, is now set to follow big bro’s example, climbing down to Earth via a magical dryer duct to escape her Father’s wrath after she hacks his computer and leaks the death dates of all of humanity, freeing them to live their remaining days to the fullest. The girl then sets about recruiting six new apostles, each of whom comes with their own mini-story, dramatized in segments like “The Gospel According to the Sex Maniac.”

The Brand New Testament is sprawling and ambitious, but despite a plot that wanders wide, it centers itself with a consistently off-center wit. The more you know your Bible, the more you’ll laugh (“not at my right hand!” objects an angry God when Ea sits down to dinner). The scenario is so absurd, and the underlying message so humanistic, that only the most humorless Bible-thumper could take offense at Poelvoorde’s clearly farcical deity. Van Dormael slips surreal gags into the interstices of the already fantastic film: an ice-skating hand, a chanson-singing ghost fish, and Deneuve’s simian liaison. The ending is a feminist apocalypse where the patriarchal God is sent into exile and the universe rebooted with flowery skies, male pregnancies, and the return of the Cyclopes.

Belgian Van Dormael’s movies are similar to the solo work of , without a giant blockbuster hit like Amelie but with an oeuvre that, overall, has been both smarter and more consistent than that of the more famous Frenchman. With a small body of only five feature films full of philosophical ambition, wit, visual imagination, and thorough weirdness, he gets my vote for the world’s most underappreciated master filmmaker.

Despite having a role that’s no bigger than any of the other six apostles, Catherine Deneuve gets third billing. You can understand why. Her iconic presence dignifies the film, and her support for the project helped Van Dormael recover from the economic disaster of Mr. Nobody.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a surreal comedy whose endless visual imagination matches its conceptual wit.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MAN BITES DOG [C’est arrivé près de chez vous] (1992)

AKA It Happened in Your Neighborhood

DIRECTED BY: Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, Benoît Poelvoorde

FEATURING: Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux

PLOT:  A documentary crew follows a serial killer around on his daily rounds, becoming more and more complicit in his crimes as he slowly charms them, and eventually finances completion of the film with the money he steals from his victims.

man_bites_dog

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTMan Bites Dog starts with an absurd premise, that a camera crew would follow a serial killer around nonjudgmentally documenting his crimes, and follows that bizarre idea to its illogical conclusion. Once the concept is established, however, the film goes about its business with a stark realism that only rarely strays into absurd territory. The movie’s black humor and ironic celebration of violence don’t set out to give us a weird feeling; they are an intellectual attempt to disturb us, morally.

COMMENTS: Even though Man Bites Dog ultimately misses its satirical target, there is a lot to admire in the craft behind this experimental expedition from three Belgian student filmmakers.  Chief among them is the performance of Benoît Poelvoorde as the killer (also named Benoît). Poelvoorde inhabits the role with a cocky, credible naturalism that suggests he is playing himself, if only he made his living by killing old ladies and postmen for a handful of francs at a time.  As the subject of the documentary, the character of Benoît is fascinating, even when he’s not pumping bullets into a body.  He has the soul of a bad poet; a would be philosopher, he takes time to notice and pontificate on the finer things in life.   He’s capable of pausing in the middle of stalking a victim to notice some amorous doves, and discourse to the camera in hushed but knowledgeable tones about avian mating habits before resuming his hunt.  He’s also casually racist and homophobic, kind to his parents and girlfriend, constantly aware of the camera’s location and visibly anxious to make sure that it is always pointed in his direction.  He’s shamelessly unafraid to be captured on film, either killing or vomiting up a mix of wine and bad mussels, so long as he’s the center of attention.  Without such a strong, guiltily charming characterization centering the film, the extreme violence and cruelty of  Benoît’s rape and killing sprees would be unpardonable.

The film, ostensibly a black comedy, also has some very funny moments: Benoît is ambushed by a rival killer, only to find, after he dispatches him in a shootout, that his latest victim also had a camera crew following him around.  The juxtaposition between Benoît’s amiable public personality, exemplified in a conversation with his grandpa about the time the old man sold a sucker a department store-bought pair of panties claiming they belonged to Brigitte Bardot, and scenes where he discourses in a drolly businesslike manner about the various ballast ratios needed to sink bodies of adults, children and midgets, also provides an undercurrent of fun.  But unfortunately, although there are a few gems, most of the way the gags fail badly to find the correct balance between darkness and comedy, leaning much too far towards the former.  Most people find the child snuffing and gang rape/murder scene particularly, and needlessly, vile, but the Continue reading CAPSULE: MAN BITES DOG [C’est arrivé près de chez vous] (1992)