If films were measured primarily by the degree to which they hit upon the hippest contemporary trends, those of the French-American Eugène Green might languish in some dustbin of stodgy earnestness. Green tells nakedly archetypal, unabashedly non-ironic tales of personal and spiritual awakening that take on familiar shapes (the midlife-crisis drama, the Oedipal saga) while explicitly conversing with centuries-old texts, and, perhaps least zeitgeist-baiting of all, he’s inescapably preoccupied with the goodness in people.
Green’s latest, Son of Joseph, is no cooler than what we’ve come to expect from the filmmaker and dramatist, as it riffs starkly on the Old Testament and utilizes the same highly formal approach to staging and editing employed in his prior La Sapienza. But Green is so committed to his seemingly old-fashioned tics that his films can look positively avant-garde alongside those of more ecstatically welcomed arthouse trailblazers.
Newcomer Victor Ezenfis, who combines the fresh-faced boyishness of La Sapienza’s Ludovico Succi with a dash of recessed intensity, plays Vincent, a troubled Parisian teenager no longer satisfied with his single mother Marie’s (Natacha Régnier) transparently evasive insistence that he has no father. One afternoon, home alone, Vincent unleashes his pent-up frustration by rifling through her cabinets, where he finds a document connecting him to one Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric), a hotshot book publisher who left Marie for the sake of philandering in the upscale literary world.
In a film where biological fatherhood has already been jokily called into question via a deadpan subplot about Vincent’s friend’s online sperm-donor operation, this revelation plays more as a plot device than a tide-shifting emotional event. Given that Vincent’s been intensively studying the violent father-son gesture in Italian master Caravaggio’s 1603 painting Sacrifice of Abraham (a wall-sized replica of which hangs in the teen’s bedroom), it’s all but inevitable that he’ll put his education into practice.
The story that follows, in which Vincent assumes a pseudonym to sniff out Oscar, sloppily plans and fails a murder attempt, and ultimately befriends the older Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione) while in the throes of guilt, unfolds with an airtight narrative economy that Green often fails to get credit for in lieu of his more eccentric talents. Nary a wasted beat taints the easy flow of the film’s first two acts, which depict linear cause and effect in stark, unfussy terms not unlike those at work in the films of Robert Bresson, to whom Green is more regularly compared for the pokerfaced performances he demands of his casts.
And while the declamatory direct-to-camera addresses in Son of Joseph are an unmistakable signature of Green’s filmmaking, the director excels equally at finding unpredictable ways of delivering necessary dramatic information in a scene. When Vincent ends up scurrying for cover in Oscar’s office after the businessman unexpectedly shows up for some afternoon delight with his assistant, much of the scene unfolds in an innocuous floor-level shot that takes the perspective of Vincent in his hiding spot underneath a fainting couch. While illicit deeds take place above the camera, with the sound communicating everything we need to know, we’re left to admire the decorative construction of the furniture.
This principle of elimination—why provide surplus aural and visual stimuli when two or three pieces of information will do?—informs every scene here, from a literary cocktail party that Vincent crashes to a dinner date between Marie and Joseph, both of which play out in a minimum of punctiliously arranged frames and share a blatant disregard for naturalistic ambiance. In many ways, Green’s work runs directly counter to the show-don’t-tell mode of cinematic thinking that valorizes “leaving space” for the viewer’s imagination. Instead, Green outlines his character’s feelings and motivations in dialogue, ensures that nothing interrupts the transmission of the sentiments, and points his camera directly at his character’s faces, those apparent vessels of truth—and yet, a sense of psychological complexity, even mystery, remains.
Occupying a space somewhere between the undiluted clarity of storybook parable and the unresolved dynamism of documentary portraiture, Son of Joseph may reach foregone narrative conclusions (a surrogate family is forged, a scoundrel is redeemed), but its characters are hardly just props for the delivery of a thesis. The insistence of Green’s gaze throughout the film encourages us to look beyond the mechanisms of speech and behavior at the more uncanny movements of the conscience.