It is something of a small marvel that the films of Eugène Green exist in today’s film festival landscape, as both the subjects and sensibility of his cinema give the impression of belonging to a bygone era of arthouse modes. His new film, Son of Joseph, signposts these allegiances early on, in its pre-credits sequence, which observes modern Parisian mundanity in static shots scored to baroque compositions. None of this should be taken as a reproach, mind, as Green’s film is the opposite of stultifying, rather an accessible, lovely vision of teenage confusion and empathy.
Our principal adolescent is Vincent (an admirably blank-faced Victor Ezenfis), a standoffish young man determined to find out who his father is. Interestingly, Vincent is distinguished from his peers in his inability to commit wrongdoings—his friends are seen torturing at rat in a cage; he feels compelled to return a screwdriver three minutes after having shoplifted it. This may have something to do with the fact that Son of Joseph is ostensibly a modified Nativity story (Vincent’s mother, played serenely by Natacha Régnier, is named Marie, and you can guess what she tells her son when he asks who his father is). This isn’t quite right, but Green invokes the biblical with purpose, primarily as a way to subtly engage—in that these ideas are never explicitly expressed, because any viewer paying attention couldn’t miss it—with a history of European Christian art. Caravaggio (“Sacrifice of Isaac” hangs gravely in Vincent’s room) and contemporaries are a consistent presence, utilized by Green as both reflections of intentions and cues for changes in the narrative.
To return to the plot, Vincent finds his estranged father (Mathieu Amalric), who is revealed to be a hotshot literary publisher, and more importantly, a pretentious blowhard. Indeed, it’s with Oscar Pormenor’s (the names of the literary milieu in this are inspired) introduction that the film embraces its farcical impulses, which are quite strong. It is Amalric’s patina of coolness that allow him to deliver lines like “details bore me” to hilarious effect. Once it’s clear that Pormenor cannot possibly be a worthy father figure, Vincent pursues him with murderous aims. After failing to follow through on his recreation of the aforementioned Caravaggio painting, he meets Pormenor’s caring brother, Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione), and with that the biblical family unit is complete.
The sequences that follow are some filled with some of the most lovely moments likely to be seen in cinema this year, as Joseph and Vincent bond and engage with the culture surrounding them in a deeply empathetic and genuine way, culminating with a scene concerning a singer in a cathedral that is unspeakably moving. The film climaxes with a farcical scene at Joseph and Oscar’s summer home, where heads—and asses, as Green makes sure to repeat—butt. Son of Joseph works through many tones (and puns), all inflected through an idiosyncratic style heavily influenced by late Bresson (The Devil, Probably comes to mind more than a few times), yielding a unified, joyous treatise on religion, family, art, and love that couldn’t be farther away from being a rarified exercise in formalism.