A Brand New Testament
by Jordan Cronk
The Son of Joseph
Dir. Eugène Green, France, Kino Lorber
The title of Eugène Green’s The Son of Joseph is predicated on a paradox. In the New Testament, Joseph is the earthly father of Jesus Christ, a responsibility bestowed upon him by his heavenly creator, God the Father. From a biological standpoint, Joseph didn’t have a son—or at least not one recorded in the Bible. Thus, before the film even begins, Son of Joseph has already outlined a contradiction in terms, in effect acknowledging the limitations of language while planting a Biblical seed in the mind of the viewer. It’s the first of many discrepancies—both linguistic and ontological—that Green will spend much of his latest film exploring and slyly skewering.
The American-born, French-assimilated Green is no stranger to spiritual referents, nor to more urbane concerns, his exceedingly literate and sophisticated ethos helping, in small part, to reinforce the director’s reputation as both an academic and an aesthete. While occasionally embracing comedic elements, Green’s cinema is a largely sobering affair. Son of Joseph is his most darkly humorous film to date, as formally austere and thematically knotty as one might expect from this most cosmopolitan of filmmakers, but also prone to situational farce and strained puns. It’s a film that traffics in the severity of Bresson as easily as it does the absurdity of Buñuel, but it doesn’t sell short either extreme, locating a tone that’s refreshingly spontaneous while remaining true to Green’s sensibility.
The film’s Biblical allusions, reinforced via title cards (“The Sacrifice of Abraham,” “The Golden Calf,” etc.), quickly become incarnate: disillusioned with his friends and professional prospects, the teenage Vincent (Victor Ezenfis), son of single mother Marie (Natacha Régnier), sets out to find his estranged father, a licentious publisher named Oscar Pormenor (a deliciously callous Mathieu Amalric), after coming across an old letter confirming his identity. Crashing one of Oscar’s literary soirees, Vincent finds his elder not a warm, fatherly type but a salacious businessman, one whose female guests are, ironically, more taken with this young stranger Vincent than any of the party’s more reputable attendees. Green is careful in these early scenes to establish, without overly explicating, Vincent’s vexed demeanor. His day-to-day activities, whether stealing random tools from a local hardware store, or idling away with a friend who proposes they sell their sperm online (“a modern business,” he says), are carried out unenthusiastically, even ambivalently (at one point, without explanation, he returns a stolen screwdriver). His bedroom, painted indigo blue and adorned with the macabre image of Caravaggio’s The Sacrifice of Isaac (in Green’s world the equivalent of a violent movie poster or black metal iconography), appears a sanctuary from a life of bourgeois mores and corporeal burdens.
These secular qualities go some way toward squaring the film’s social context, but, as ever, Green’s aims are less political than philosophical. When Vincent, after inadvertently eavesdropping on one of Oscar’s afternoon trysts with his secretary, returns to murder his father with a stolen knife, what at first appears a morality play veers ever so slightly toward allegory, if not satire. But a brush with the divine—visualized, in typical Green fashion, with a simple throw of light against a wall—and a chance encounter with a sympathetic soul stirs an awakening within Vincent. This man (played by Dardennes regular Fabrizio Rongione), who is actually Oscar’s disgruntled brother Joseph, remains a fascinating enigma to Vincent, an angelic presence sent to guide him on the rest of his journey. Joseph’s introduction, his burgeoning romantic involvement with Marie, and subsequent transfiguration into Vincent’s de facto father completes the characters’ Biblical coordinates, and as the trio—now united in blessed communion—set out for the Pormenor country home and, inevitably, into the desert-like expanses of the surrounding beaches, their quest’s more metaphysical dimensions come sharply into focus.
One of cinema’s last great modernists, Green here continues his typically rigorous compositional schema and emphasis on bodies and rigid choreography rather than action or emoting. Meticulously framed, starkly lit, and almost uniformly static, his compositions (care of cinematographer Raphaël O’Byrne) often betray a dramaturgical depth resembling the Baroque period paintings seen throughout the film. Expository scenes are programmatically edited, forgoing match cuts in favor of extended montages comprised of individual characters declaiming, with little to no affect, directly at the camera. It’s such a hopelessly unfashionable style that it stimulates the senses through sheer chutzpah. The approach pays unexpected dividends in the film’s more humorous passages, as when Vincent’s friend flatly announces the particulars of his sperm bank proposition, or when Oscar and his secretary start to fool around in his office as Vincent hides beneath a nearby couch, a veritable set piece by Green’s standards that he visualizes in just a handful of images (entwined feet, discarded panties, compressed couch springs, and Vincent’s indifferent expression). These methods are so strangely effective that even a running gag of bad puns between Joseph and Vincent is blunted to the point where it becomes pleasurable to simply surrender to the tone-deaf humor.
The dialogue is a clever mix of double entendres, spiritual invocations, and grave rhetoric, but it doesn’t favor one of these modes over another; as spoken by the actors in characteristically uninflected tones, the words and their associations are brought to bear on viewers with no untoward influence. A mid-film interlude sees Vincent and Joseph enraptured by a pair of female singers performing an operetta in a vacant, candle-lit cathedral, their words (“His mind was quick/His soul generous/And never did he grieve his illustrious, ill-fated house, except by his death”) reflecting upon the grief and spiritual transformation that our young protagonist is undergoing. In Green’s films, every word, whether spoken, sung, or written, is a pathway toward enlightenment. A more literal scene finds the newly acquainted Joseph and Vincent sitting in a park discussing the spiritual and moral implications of the story of Abraham and Isaac. If Vincent’s attempted murder is, as the film seems to suggest, a kind of inversion of Abraham’s would-be sacrifice—a symbolic attempt by a son to demonstrate the extent of his lost innocence—then one might read the film as a kind of reconciliation of Old Testament law and New Testament promise.
Indeed, even before their closing act expedition, in which a donkey escorts the family toward the horizon and to what one can only assume is a kind of New Bethlehem, it’s clear that Vincent, Joseph, and Marie are well on their way to fulfilling a preordained order. But Green’s deft deployment of overt symbolism, coupled with his empathetic attention to the emotional travails of his characters, allows the film to operate equally well as a theologic parable, an existential comedy, and an anachronistic family drama. In fact, it’s that very amalgamation of registers that elevates the film far past the merely instructive. “Films from that period give us hope. Even when the subject matter is dark,” Marie says to Vincent after an evening out to see Antonioni’s Red Desert, followed by the film’s most plainspoken admission: “I need hope in order to live.”