The Music Box Theatre opens its 2016 Chicago French Film Festival with “The Brand New Testament,” a brash theological lark distributed in the U.S. by Music Box Films. Running July 22 through July 28, the sixth annual non-competitive showcase offers twelve titles, mostly dramas from 2015.
Fest co-presenters are Alliance Francaise and the Consulate General of France in Chicago. The French embassy is also partnering with the Gene Siskel Film Center to present ten different features in the Young French Cinema 2016 series, July 1st through August 3rd. (For information on the Young French Cinema 2016 series, click here)
“The Brand New Testament” (July 22, 7:30pm; July 25, 4:45pm) is an appealing France-Belgium-Luxembourg co-production that was Belgium’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards. Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael and his Belgian co-writer Thomas Gunzig set their upbeat satire of Christianity in Brussels. They confabulate revisionist gospels wherein the apostles come to number 18, same as on a hockey team, instead of the original 12, like a baseball line-up.
“God exists,” narrates ten-year-old Ea (Pili Groyne). “He lives in Brussels. He’s a bastard, he’s horrible to his wife and daughter.” God (Benoit Poelvoorde) is indeed an unkempt ill-tempered lout who drinks beer and watches sports on television. He berates his dutiful wife (Yolande Moreau ) who never speaks. She always sets a place at the kitchen table for their son J.C. He left long ago and got himself crucified. Incarnated in porcelain statute atop a wardrobe, he secretly speaks to Ea.
According to Ea, God was horribly bored so he sat down at his computer to create a world of creatures. “First, he made Brussels,” she explains. Along unpeopled streets wander newly created giraffes. They look lost. Chickens sit in a cinema and watch chicken movies. Soon we see a naked man there beholding a blank screen all by himself. He visits a vacant library where all the pages are blank. Then Eve enters. Let the begetting begin. Multitudes ensue.
“He set them against each other in his name,” continues Ea, skipping ahead in history. Here Van Dormael inserts clips of battle scenes from the old black-and-white films “Cabiria,” “The Sheik” and “Aleksandr Nevsky.” Intertitles proclaim: “For God!”… “For Allah!” … “For Baal!” God also programs life with thousands of Universal Annoyances.
Ev thinks he’s mean. She wants to fix things. She hacks into God’s desktop and pulls off a worldwide data dump into every smart phone on the planet. Crawling through the door of her mother’s washing machine, Ea emerges in a Brussels laundromat. The rest of the plot observes her finding six more apostles to compose the testament in the film’s title. Her quest occasions six love stories, including Catherine Deneuve’s character falling hard for a gorilla.
God chases after his daughter through the laundry portal. Only she can reboot his computer. French immigration authorities will deem God an illegal alien. With no papers, he’s deported to Uzbekistan, where he will work on an assembly line for washing machines. For eternity, no doubt.
Van Dormael displays an impish philosophy. His mise-en-scene yields endless surprises. Creation is rebooted by the Creator’s daughter and wife. Anti-patriarchal wit wins the day. Nonbelievers are embraced in the new world.
“The Brand New Testament” nods to laïcité, as France terms its secularist doctrine dating from the revolution and legislated since 1905. The thriller “Disorder” (July 23, 7:00pm) is more topical. Islamicist allusions occur throughout a tense and nuanced psychological study written and directed by Alice Winocour.
The tattoo on his forearm reads “Chaos,” but what’s going on under Vincent’s skin is unseen. “Disorder” recalls “Augustine,” Winocur’s debut feature set in Salpetriere asylum for women in 1875. The Music Box screened this history-informed drama about the title patient and her physician in 2013. In her follow-up film, Winocour observes another pair of characters in an enclosed setting with inner and outer threats. [Click here for more information]
“Come What May” (July 24th, 4:15pm; July 25th, 7pm) is the only period film this year. Director Christian Carion draws on the memories of his mother and millions of others displaced by the German offensive of May 10th, 1940. Ennio Morricine supplies the score for this harrowing yet heartening tale of a German communist on the run with his son. He is befriended by a Scot soldier and a French villager in a tale of valor and love in war-time. There’s a splendid reversal of fortune for a German director of a propaganda film.
The only animated work in the festival is “Phantom Boy” (2:45pm, July 23rd; 5:15pm, July 28th), yet another France/Belgium co-production. Co-directors Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli made in “A Cat in Paris” in 2010. Now the setting is New York City.