The Son of Joseph
Directed by Eugene Green
Opens January 13 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
On paper, Eugene Green’s films shouldn’t work: his style is hand-me-down-Bresson, his milieux is traditionalist France to the point of sterility, and his characters say things like “It seems to me the world is one big hospital, with doctors and nurses looking after patients.” Yet there’s a lightness to Green’s touch, and a gentle beauty to many of his images, that redeems these flaws and even courts the sublime. While I’m not sure Son of Joseph, his latest, reaches that level, it has its moments, and given how preposterous and labored the film often is, that’s nothing to scoff at.
At the center of Son of Joseph is Vincent (Victor Ezenfis), a sullen and troubled teenager who harbors resentment over his single mother’s (Natacha Régnier) refusal to tell him the identity of his father. But upon discovering an old letter Vincent learns that the culprit is Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric), a famous cad of a book publisher. Inspired by Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac (as a giant bedroom wall poster—the mother is never concerned about this), Vincent cleverly executes revenge upon Pormenor, nearly slitting his throat. After the change of heart Vincent coincidentally runs into and befriends Pormenor’s much nicer brother (Fabrizio Rongione), who eventually becomes romantically involved with the mother, to the happiness of all.
The labored quality of Son of Joseph, as one might guess from its title, stems from Green’s attempt at intentionally heavy-handed religious allegory and spiritual investigation, a direction that has become conspicuous in his work since 2009’s The Portuguese Nun. The mother is named Marie, Pormenor’s brother Joseph; narrative chapters bear titles like “The Sacrifice of Abraham” and “The Flight From Egypt,” and a Balthazarian donkey makes an appearance at film’s end. Yet in its storytelling convolutions and contrivances The Son of Joseph forces the issue of a divine master plan—and the unification of a symbolic holy family—when it actually better evokes the sacred during “smaller” moments: creaking floorboards, the stupid jokes Vincent tells Joseph, Régnier’s smile. A poetry and musical performance in a church tingles the spine in ways much of the rest of the film does not.
Son of Joseph also possesses something of a subplot involving Pormenor and the pretentious, decadent literary world. It’s here that Green’s Bressonian direction of actors—as related to the American-born writer-director’s interest in the theatrically baroque—especially becomes an acquired taste. Reciting their lines with minimal facial and vocal expression (and often staring directly into the camera while doing so), Green’s troupe renders dialogue like “I scribble reviews for The Literary Lift” and “Oscar is Violette’s lover… He is also that gentleman’s catamite” so bone-dry as to be virtually over-the-top. Anyway, it’s a relatively novel take on the old “aren’t these arty rich people so insufferable?” gag. That Green can make hay with this material in addition to portions of the headier themes and situations of Son of Joseph is fairly impressive.