Film of the week: The Son of Joseph, Eugène Green’s beatific family fable

The singular auteur’s modern Nativity brings light to a family living under the cloud of Mathieu Amalric’s Parisian literary tyrant.

Nick Pinkerton
Updated:

Early on in Eugène Green’s The Son of Joseph, teenager Vincent (Victor Ezenfis), hoping to meet Oscar (Mathieu Amalric), the father he’s never known, slips into a book launch being held by Oscar’s publishing company. Wearing a screwed-in-place scowl, Vincent soaks up the inane cocktail-party banter of bohemian mountebanks – the clueless hyping of a made-up author as “the next Céline”, the airy pronouncement by Oscar that “all art is subversive”.

Green first appeared on the scene with Toutes les nuits in 2001, when the so-called New French Extremity was enjoying its ‘subversive’ heyday. Then as now Green was an outlier, by virtue of his age (he was already north of 50), nationality (he is a long-ago-transplanted American) and his complete indifference to épater le bourgeois feints. His films celebrate the transmission and preservation of knowledge, not heedlessly upsetting the apple cart, and at heart The Son of Joseph is, like his recent La Sapienza (2014), concerned with the mutually transformative relationships between mentor and mentee.

If Green can be said to have a master himself it must be the filmmaker to whom he is most frequently likened: Robert Bresson. The comparison is helpful inasmuch as it gives a novice some idea of what his movies are like – performances that eschew whatever the current tenets of realism are, a tendency towards flat and rather austere framing – though it also leaves a lot out. Green’s films have a singular placidity in their stillness, and he is much more of the absurdist comedian than the Jansenist Bresson, dealing here with mistaken identities, boudoir farce and a subplot involving online sperm sales. Yes, at one point a donkey shows up in The Son of Joseph, but this doesn’t signify a homage to Au hasard Balthazar (1966) so much as it does the common frame of reference and iconographic signification Green and Bresson share, which is that of the Christian church. (The story of Abraham and Isaac is the principal source material here, with Caravaggio’s rendition the dominant decoration in Vincent’s bedroom.)

The Son of Joseph (Le Fils de Joseph, 2016)

If there is any respect in which Green truly resembles Bresson it’s in his dauntlessness, the manner in which he has pursued his own preoccupations and creative strategies singlemindedly and solitarily – solitude being a theme he frequently returns to. Unlike Bresson, Green has no problem reusing actors – regular Adrien Michaux is here, briefly, and in the more expansive role of Oscar’s brother Joseph, who becomes a much needed friend to Vincent, is one of the stars of La Sapienza, Fabrizio Rongione, also a favourite of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, credited as producers. Working with a clout he’s rarely enjoyed in the past, Green shows that he doesn’t share Bresson’s dislike of established stars: in addition to Amalric we have an incandescent Natacha Régnier as Vincent’s mother Marie, and Maria de Medeiros as a flustered, brittle literary critic alarmed to learn of the death of Nathalie Sarraute.

Green drills his performers one and all in a style of declarative delivery that is measured and phonetically ultra-precise but never stiff or inexpressive, with lines often disarmingly delivered face-forward to the camera. When first introduced, Vincent seems to exist under a perpetual cloud, but his relationship with Joseph brings the light bursting through. Green’s films give meaning to the notion of ‘seeing the good in people’ – throughout them you will find characters wearing an expression of tender happiness that makes it seem as if the bearer is in possession of a wonderful secret they’re bursting to share – which is at the very core of The Son of Joseph.

The Son of Joseph (Le Fils de Joseph, 2016)

In what Oscar calls the “youth and audacity” of the writers he cultivates, Joseph diagnoses “despair and cynicism”, and together he and Vincent, with whom he shares a sympathetic temperament and a weakness for awful puns, embark on a process of mutual rejuvenation. Vincent discovers his youth as for the first time, which refreshes Joseph; and Joseph in turn teaches Vincent how to see – scenes of him directing his pupil before Georges de La Tour’s St Joseph the Carpenter echo the guided tours of Francesco Borromini’s architectural masterpieces given by Rongione in La Sapienza.

A builder of sorts himself, Green gives prime importance to harmoniousness of form, and his film ends with a radical reconstruction of the same set of figures that it begins with: a couple, a lone figure and an animal. The first configuration includes Vincent, two twisted teenagers and the trapped rat they are tormenting with long needles in a dingy hideaway. The last includes Vincent, his newly united parents and that gentle donkey walking in open air. What a pleasure it is to step into the light.

 

Trailer for The Son of Joseph

 

In the January 2017 issue of Sight & Sound

Father of invention

Rich in biblical references and religious iconography, Eugène Green’s The Son of Joseph borrows the imagery of the past to examine the spiritual health of the present, in a satirical, often very funny tale that follows a young man’s search for the father who abandoned him. By Catherine Wheatley.

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