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Tuesday, May 2, 2017
Jaco van Dormael | Le tout nouveau testament (The Brand New Testament)
a tarantella is not a waltz
by Douglas Messerli
Thomas Gunzig and Jaco van Dormael (scenario), Jaco van Dormael (director) Le tout nouveau testament / 2015, USA 2016
When, I have asked many times, did Americans lose their understanding of satire and irony? Certainly it was several decades ago, when I was still teaching at Temple University and my class of otherwise intelligent and interesting young freshman openly rebelled at their reading assignment, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” They simply were appalled by his suggestion that the English should solve the Irish “problem” by consuming Irish children. No one in my class found the suggestion even slightly ironic, and were angry that I was even teaching this, what evidently they perceived as a detestable document that actually embraced cannibalism.
I spent a long time with them, trying to help them to analyze the language, to see the inflatus of the narrator, the ridiculous absurdity of his arguments within the very structure of the language itself—all to no avail. They simply could no longer hear what my generation had easily assimilated from our patient teachers. Something in the entire society had been lost; satire and irony were no longer possible, even if these students seemed no more or less (probably less) politically committed than my own generation.
Of course, irony has always been a problem. One woman’s double-layered statement is another man’s despicable commentary. It’s hard to read texts that require at least two levels of comprehension within a society that is simply having a difficult time at finding its own straight-forward values. I suppose those of the War generation and those of us born immediately after simply who so appalled at what had happened that we could not imagine that there could not but be another layer of reality underneath the horrible facts of World War II. Not everyone in the world had gone crazy, only a great many of the planet’s beings. Maybe today, with the rise of Trump and his cronies, we might again come to perceive that, but I still doubt it.
Satire depends on a rational world that is being transgressed by the irrational. But before satire can really be comprehended one has to have a notion of what is rational and irrational, and that is becoming more and more difficult, I fear, over the past decades. The irrational speakers pretend to be absolutely rational, something the Russian modernists recognized, but apparently has now been lost even in that country.
When people like Putin and Trump purposely lie and continue to do so they confuse a people who don’t have a clear notion of what their own values are in the first place. In a world of disbelief, any possible statement has equal value; you’re either for it or against it, some times without knowing why.
My somewhat grumpy comments were elicited by seeing a new Jaco Van Dormael film, The Brand New Testament. Van Dormael, in the few wonderful films he has directed to date, delves into these very raw edges, wherein people believe impossible things and often attempt to carry out their grudges in ridiculous ways that, if truly actualized, might bright down whatever remnants of orderly society that we have left. His “heroes,” put quite simply, are adult-infants and bitter grumps who attempt to get revenge for what they feel has contributed to their unjust treatment from the world around them. In short, they have no sense of humor.
Yet the Belgium director’s films are often furiously funny or, at the very least, mordant satires that attempt to see beyond the ordinary in which their character’s feel trapped. Toto (Thomas Van Hasebroeck) of his wonderful first film Toto the Hero feels that his life has been stolen by another child, born to wealthy parents, whereas he has suffered a most ordinary and problematic life with his own perfectly normal folks. Van Dormael’s Nemo Nobody, in his Mr. Nobody, is a 118-year-old mortal, possibly the last human being on earth, who lives out his unhappy life by realizing all the wrong choices and their alternatives that he made and might have made throughout his life.
In his newest work, A Brand New Testament, van Dormael has taken Nemo to the very next level, exploring an eccentric and comic vision of God (Benoît Poelvoorde), who—in the director’s quite absurd vision—is a mean old wife-and-child-abuser who lives in the Belgium capital of Brussels, having first created that metropolis over all others and inhabiting it with various animals until he chanced upon human beings, who ever since he has tortured in numerous petty ways and controlled by keeping their death dates secret. Humans have no choice, van Dormael argues, but to live a life of obeisance since they do not know “their shelf date,” the date of their own deaths.
To any true religious believer, von Dormael’s film is surely a profane disdain of biblical truths. But, strangely, this director’s vision strays so very far from any traditional notion of God, that it appears more like a satire of any petty dictator trying to control the human race. Christ, after his death “in the world” has been turned into a living statue, who comes alive, evidently only to his sister, Ea (Pili Groyne), a young goth-like teenage rebel, locked away in their seedy apartment along with her mother, a secret Goddess (Yolande Moreau), who spends her days watching sports events on television and collecting baseball cards when she isn’t busy vacuuming and magically filling the frig with biere (beer) and the cupboards with biscuits, both of which her grizzled husband consumes in immoderate amounts.
Escaping through a washing machine that connects up with an everyday Brussels laundromat, Ea escapes in search of 6 further apostles (based on her mother’s belief that 18 is the perfect number, the number of the players of her baseball games).
The rest of this film is a wonderful mockery of the lives of the saints, as one by one Ea discovers her apostles in the most terrifying of human types: a woman who has lost one of her arms, a sex-addict, a clerk who secretly would like to adventure to the arctic with communicating birds, a serial killer, an unhappily married woman Martine (the marvelous Catherine Deneuve), who falls in love with a circus gorilla (yes, it’s in the plot!), and a young boy Willy who decides, given his soon-to-be death, to become a girl, with whom Ea falls in love.
One figure, knowing that he has 63 years to live, keeps performing daredevil acts—jumping from high buildings, leaping from airplanes, etc, always surviving, of course. Others give up their former jobs to enjoy what little time they have left of their lives.
God goes on the chase, but he is treated with complete disbelief, despite his uncanny abilities to know about individual’s lives, and is as abused as he has abused the human race, ending up in Uzbekistan where he is forced into endless factory work.
There’s a lot more, obviously, but it doesn’t truly matter. It’s all a kind of delightful imaginative leap in the satiric-ironic vision of what any believer of the incredible stories of the Bible might equally be able to believe in, suggests the director.Many critics, like Stephen Holden of The New York Times recognized this fantasy for what it really was. But others, like Godfrey Cheshire writing on the Roger Ebert site, reminded me of my students of decades ago; he was distressed quite obviously by the extravagant “Mack Sennett-like” gags about which everyone around him seemed to be laughing—including, to his disdain, the critics whom he had already read! Well, I don’t blame him for guffawing audience members, who often equally irritate me, people who feel they just have to laugh at every single wink and nod of the script. And there are moments in this von Dormael film where it almost appears he is channeling certain aspects of the Zucker’s Airplane! Do we really need, after the metaphor that compares Ea’s testament writer’s voice to that of a thousand walnut’s being cracked, to actually see a room of walnut crackers? But overall, von Dormael’s works are not laugh-out-loud pieces. I never laughed out loud at Swift’s Irish babies either.
What Cheshire did not comprehend—nor, I gather, some of the audience members of the viewing he witnessed—is the this director’s work, as fantastical as it is, gains its humor from a kind of mordacious satire, a biting, acrid, or caustic writing that relates to being burned, maybe even with the possibility of death itself. A tarantella is a not a waltz.
If we laugh, it is only because we know we all have a death date, which we cannot truly guess, which God’s wife eventually wipes away from the memories the humans previously notified in this film. The laugher of this kind of satire, to my way of thinking, is an internal one, an intellectual chuckle that has little to do with presenting us with yet another everyday truism. No, the truth of this kind of satire is far deeper that an everyday statement of shared values. Van Dormael’s is the truth of human behavior, not its proclamations or simple statements about how to live life or what life really means. To read van Dormael’s film you have to perceive reality on many dimensions: one’s everyday experiences and the perception of those experiences. As the child, Toto suggests in the director’s first film, his father each day goes to wait on the other side of the door, the boy being unable to comprehend that there is a whole world outside that door that he is unable to imagine. Maybe we have all become, today, like Toto, children who do perceive the world that goes beyond what we literally might believe to be the truth.
Los Angeles, December 16, 2016