Le Fils de Joseph (The Son of Joseph)
Those unfamiliar with the ways of Eugène Green will find themselves rather put off by The Son of Joseph. He has an idiosyncratic style that is purposefully stilted and unrealistic: people move in a rehearsed way and spout formalities with absurd, deadpan conviction. Those who prefer, say, the social realism of the Dardenne brothers (who are attached as producers) should give it a miss, since the director, in his worst moments, makes Wes Anderson look like John Cassavetes. Yet there is something admirably consistent about this particular stylisation, which allows for some interesting emotions to bleed through its carefully considered cracks.
Vincent (Victor Ezenfis) is a dispossessed Parisian teen, whose mother (Natacha Régnier) refuses to tell him who his father is. After going through her belongings, he finds a letter to Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric, on riotous form), in which she admits she has borne his child. Vincent goes in search of him, with angry, malicious intent; along the way, he meets his uncle Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione), who proves to be a kinder paternal influence.
The title and sporadic chapter intertitles – with names like “The Sacrifice of Abraham” and “ The Carpenter” – promise a pious meditation on Catholic faith, or lack thereof, in the vein of European cinema from the 60s. But Green instead invokes religious imagery with the playfully light touch of Luis Buñuel. There is a good sight gag involving a donkey, and something delightfully absurd in the fact that Vincent, a teenage boy, has a huge print of Caravaggio’s The Sacrifice of Isaac on his wall. And Green isn’t above profanity in his remixing of sacred verse: there is a sex scene that makes an ingenious use of a chaise lounge.
The themes of fathers and sons, of broken family units, are worked to touching effect in the relationship between Joseph and Vincent, who establish a gentle intergenerational friendship. Fabrizio Rongione is a Dardennes regular, and he knows how to grapple with the material in order to wring the right kind of emotions out of it; and Amalric, the yin to his yang, is a blast as a sleazebag book publisher. Elsewhere, though, everything comes across as a bit lifeless, almost trying too hard to achieve levity through scripture. Green’s formal approach will drive some up the wall, but even his most ardent fans will soon find themselves forgetting this likeable yet slight film.
Le Fils de Joseph (The Son of Joseph) is released in selected cinemas on 16th December 2016.
Watch the trailer for Le Fils de Joseph (The Son of Joseph) here: