One of the more hysterical performances in Belgium’s Oscar entry The Brand New Testament is from French legend Catherine Deneuve, who plays Martine and is chosen by God’s 10-year old daughter EA (yes, he has a daughter in addition to Jesus Christ) as one of the six new apostles. It just so happens that Martine is a loveless housewife, has dumped her husband and has found love with a gorilla at the zoo. And they’re going beyond third base.
Such are the hijinks in this satirical comedy, which made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. The Brand New Testament focuses on grumpy old jerky guy God, who happens to live in Brussels, being outwitted by his daughter, who yearns to turn a new page for the entire world. She vies to create a new testament while collecting six new apostles along the way. In order to unchain the world from her bum of a dad, she sneaks into his office and texts the entire world that they have a limited amount of time left before they die. At first they think it’s a joke, but then they ultimately die. As the globe figures out how to spend their end of days, many realize — they have no use for God.
Director Jaco Van Dormael enlisted many of his close actor friends in the film, but sent Deneuve the script. “She said, she was right for the part,” says the helmer. However, if you thought bedding a gorilla was funny, the behind-the-scenes moments were even more riotous. Van Dormael told Deadline’s Dominic Patten at Thursday’s Awardsline screening, “She’s afraid of nothing. During the sex scenes I asked her if she wanted to keep her camisole on. She replied, ‘Jaco, I never make love with my camisole on!’ And that was on the first day,” said the director to great laughs in the audience.
“What was even funnier was the gorilla inside, he was a Spanish guy. I didn’t speak Spanish, but she did. So, she was the translator between the gorilla and me. I’m giving directions like ‘Can we get your breast a little higher?’,” added Van Dormael.
Also drawing plenty attention in the film is the 10-year old actress who plays Ea, Pili Groyne, whose earlier credits include the Marion Cotillard Oscar-nominated film from last year Two Days, One Nights. “I met her when she was seven years old and afraid of nothing. When I first directed her, and she was crawling around, I asked her, ‘Could you do that with more…?’ And I forgot the word I was going to use. She responded, ‘With more determination?’ It was then I knew I had the right actress.”
In hatching the project, Van Dormael and his co-screenwriter Thomas Gunzig started with the gimmick of religion. Having been raised Catholic, Van Dormael says that he was always surprised “How there were only two or three lines said by women in these big books. So we first imagined God had a daughter, a rebel like J.C., but who acted against the the authority of the father.” It was the first time that the director worked with a screenwriter in his eight-film career.
After a series of shorts during the 1980s, Van Dormael came to global attention with his 1991 heartwarming film Toto The Hero which won two awards at Cannes (award of youth and the golden camera) and was selected by the National Board of Review as one of its top foreign films that year. The Brand New Testament recently won best comedy feature at Fantastic Fest.