- Nick Chen
Eugène Green’s wonderfully acerbic new film, The Son of Joseph, is a stylish odyssey that unfolds like a twisted nativity play. There’s Joseph, Marie (it’s French), a donkey and a fatherless son – except this boy isn’t exactly the chosen one. Presented through Green’s signature visual aesthetic, the 21st century fairytale will satisfy the director’s faithful flock while hopefully converting a few agnostics. At least, within the deadpan dialogue is a flavour of Charlie Brown and Wes Anderson; though the conversations are precise and detached, there’s inarguable emotion burning beneath the dry one-liners.
When we meet Vincent (Victor Ezenfis), he’s a bratty adolescent in need of a hobby. With his best (and only) friend preoccupied with selling sperm online, he otherwise sulks in a bedroom which, funnily enough, has Caravaggio’s The Sacrifice of Isaac pinned to the wall. In turn, Vincent funnels his angst towards his sweet, loving mother, Marie (Natacha Régnier), who denies knowing the whereabouts – or even identity – of the man who birthed him. Of course, it’s a lie, and some sleuthing leads Vincent to the absent parent. No, his father isn’t God; he’s a philandering publisher called Oscar Pormenor (played by Mathieu Amalric with acidic bravura).
With several characters in The Son of Joseph named after Bible figures, many of the individual destinations are predetermined, and yet Green spins the eccentric story down unpredictable avenues. There’s an absurd helicopter chase, a sex sequence with no visible bodies, and even a few hilarious digs at the literary industry. In a chapter titled “The False Calf”, Vincent crashes an extravagant book soiree where he’s mistaken for The Next Big Thing – a snarky riff on false idolatry among networking authors.
The religious riffs continue in dramatic fashion, particularly when Vincent kidnaps Oscar and, clutching a knife, considers sacrificing his father. The vengeful teen is essentially recreating (and switching the roles of) his bedroom wall’s Caravaggio painting. And yet, amid the weighty references, it remains a down-to-earth portrait of a heartbroken kid confronting the callous man who abandoned him.
Ultimately, The Son of Joseph is an existential voyage about forging your own existence.
Crucially, The Son of Joseph isn’t smart just for the sake of it; there’s a surprisingly tender undercurrent which, ironically, has little to do with faith. More specifically, it’s whether Vincent would prefer his mother to date Oscar, his biological father, or Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione), an almost too-perfect parental figure. When Vincent remarks at the Louvre that Jesus was never Joseph’s true child, Joseph (the real one) is prompted to reply, “Through his son, he became a father.” With that sentence, the film is unlocked.
If the plot sounds too chaotic, bear in mind it’s grounded by Green’s fixed, fastidious camera style. As demonstrated in 2014’s La Sapienza, the director delights in static compositions, often to drink in the architecture of his metropolitan locations. His other trick – a gimmick on La Sapienza, perhaps, but not here – is for dialogue spoken directly into the lens. Thus, each line is intimately shared with the viewer, as if it’s a deep secret being confessed. But the fourth wall isn’t broken – it’s just a subtle shift of the camera angle.
Ultimately, The Son of Joseph is an existential voyage about forging your own existence. Green’s script practically gives it away two-thirds in when Marie and Joseph discuss Antonioni’s Red Desert. Towards the end of Red Desert, Monica Vitti notes that birds adjust to living amidst manmade pollution. “Films from that period always give us hope,” Marie says, “even when the subject matter is dark.” She gazes into her new partner’s eyes. “I need hope in order to live.”
Perhaps Marie’s referring to a tale even older than Antonioni’s, and it’s her way of welcoming Joseph into the household. After all, it’s no coincidence the chapter titles – this section’s named “The Carpenter” – point towards a unifying belief: when it comes to parenthood, some emotional bonds weigh heavier than blood.