Stylized French Film Boldly Explores Fatherhood, Faith and Fine Art
DIRECTED BY EUGÈNE GREEN/FRENCH/2017 (U.S. theatrical release)
STREET DATE: JUNE 13, 2017/KINO LORBER
Exhibiting no intension of downplaying its stark deliberateness, director Eugène Green’s (La Sapienza) latest film, the delightfully odd The Son of Joseph, nonetheless proves to be a resonant triumph.
Arch and of few carefully chosen words, The Son of Joseph might be the kind of film that, in the minds of the ignorant at least, define the so-called “pretentiousness” of contemporary foreign and/or art house cinema. Characters carry themselves with a stylized stiffness, speak in short articulate doses, and operate more internally than externally. There are several beats before anyone begins to speak, and when they finish talking and walk away together, you’d better believe the shot won’t cut until they’re all the way up the pathway and around the bend.
But, for something to truly qualify as pretentious, it must merely pretend to any higher aspirations, be they intellectual, formal, the blending of the two, and/or beyond. Like both Terrence Malick and Wes Anderson, Green unabashedly wields both a pronounced visual style, melded with a certain worldview. In this case, we witness traces of both of those artists: Malick’s grace-driven preoccupation with Christian tradition and faith; Anderson’s uber-symmetrical framing and allowance of actors to spike the lens in their close-ups. And, it must be said, both of their father issues are evoked, perpetual and soul-scarred on the way in.
Not to beat around the burning bush, The Son of Joseph is nothing if not an exploration of what fatherhood truly is, means, and could mean.
Not to beat around the burning bush, The Son of Joseph is nothing if not an exploration of what fatherhood truly is, means, and could mean. This is telegraphed in the film’s early moments, as the ragged name of a storefront translated to “Father & Sons”. The notion of commerce/business as the male familial continuing tie that binds is of course not new. Minutes later, a young male acquaintance on the street invites the young and angry protagonist Vincent to join him in his profitable internet business, selling his sperm on the internet. It’s a quick “no” for Vincent, though we gather he’s not quite sure why. He wishes his friend luck, and they go their separate ways in rigid, symmetrical fashion.
Less new is the story of the would-be sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. The biblical incident, as famously and dynamically rendered by Caravaggio, hangs as a large print tacked to Vincent’s bedroom wall. That it is the only thing on Vincent’s otherwise bare, deep blue walls reveals both how unconventionally preoccupied this kid is, as well as how unabashedly Green cares to be in his set decoration. More than once, the camera assumes Vincent’s point of view as it dip and dives across the narrative of the classic painting: A crazed blade-wielding Abraham. An angel’s calm hand upon his wrist, stopping the act at the last second. A bold ram, the replacement sacrifice to the Lord, looking immediately on. The terrified, possibly scarred-for-life face of Isaac.
But this is not The Son of Abraham; it is The Son of Joseph. Not until Vincent happens to meet and befriend a good man called Joseph (Green veteran actor Fabrizio Rongione) does Vincent begin to realize if not who he is, then who he isn’t.
As played by Victor Rzenfis, Vincent’s inner rage of paternal dejection dominates him. His mother, played by another Green actress Natacha Régnier (in a most delicate performance, appearing about to burst with either grief or joy at any given moment) stonily tells him he has no father.
When he at long last discovers the identity of his father, he sets off to seek vengeance. French cinema mainstay actor/director Mathieu Amalric plays the father, a grotesquely privileged publisher, but more of a full time philanderer. His sexual behavior is communicated in the most obvious yet non-graphic of depictions. Vincent’s confrontation with him is tense, it being a long-brewed fiery tension. Of course, Amalric has no idea who is attacking him, or why.
The single greatest artistic achievement is, then, that amid the weight and grave trauma inherent in the story, The Son of Joseph is a surprisingly breezy affair. The seventy year old Green’s touch as both the singular writer and director is a one of gentle artifice, albeit never sacrificing his film’s themes in favor of such digestibility. One is tempted to say that only a man of international origin, having lived a life steeped in the arts and theater, would deliver such hard truths with such eventual hope. This is a genuine fable laid out with the best of intentions and precision of execution. It is also one of the most provocative and deliberate films of faith in recent years. A unique and stand-alone work work of cinema not to be skipped.
The Kino Lorber blu-ray of the film is a sharp, vibrant and shimmering edition. The film’s classical soundtrack pours through with Old World majesty and vigor. As for extras, viewers are treated to a thirty-eight minute interview with Green, conducted stoically in the director’s stilted, striped down style by Natacha Régnier. His career, worldview, and personality all come though in this off-kilter bonus feature. Only the film’s theatrical trailer accompanies it.
The images used in this review are present only as reference to the film and do not reflect the image quality of the Blu-ray.