THE SON OF JOSEPH (LE FILS DE JOSEPH) (Eugène Green, 2016)
Film Society of Lincoln Center
Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Howard Gilman Theater
144 West 65th St. between Eighth & Amsterdam Aves.
Opens Friday, January 13
Eugène Green returned to the New York Film Festival in 2016 with the glorious French satire / black comedy / biblical parable The Son of Joseph, a masterful blending of sound, image, and story that is as stunning to listen to as it is to watch. Newcomer Victor Ezenfis stars as Vincent, an intractable young teen who is desperate to discover who his father is, no matter how hard his single mother (Natacha Regnier), a nurse, tries to keep that information from him. “I don’t want to help people,” he says. “I love no one.” His sneaky ways finally reveal the man’s name, and Vincent tracks him down only to discover that the man, Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric), is a boorish, self-obsessed publisher who is cheating on his wife with his sexy secretary, Bernadette (Julia de Gasquet). At a party for his company’s latest book, The Predatory Mother, ever-so-chic critic Violette Tréfouille (Maria de Medeiros) mistakes Vincent for an up-and-coming novelist, with Oscar cluelessly declaring him the next Céline before finding out who the boy really is. Soon a disappointed Vincent is befriended by Oscar’s brother, Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione), but neither is aware of the connection. As Vincent is introduced to art and literature, he attempts to manipulate everyone around him in order to form the family he’s always wanted.
Green, an American expatriate living and working in France — and who appears in the film as the grizzled hotel concierge — divides The Son of Joseph into five chapters named for major biblical events, including “The Sacrifice of Abraham,” “The Golden Calf,” and “The Flight to Egypt.” Vincent is mesmerized by a poster in his room of Caravaggio’s “The Sacrifice of Isaac”; at the Louvre, Joseph shows him religious paintings such as Philippe de Champaigne’s “The Dead Christ” and Georges de la Tour’s “Joseph the Carpenter.” Ever the absurdist, Green (Toutes les nuits, Le monde vivant) turns to the surreal for the finale, which features a revelation that elicited an audible gasp of wonder from the audience when I saw it, an exhalation in which I heartily participated. As in 2014’s architectural wonder La Sapienza, which also starred Rongione, each frame is composed like a work of art, courtesy of longtime Green cinematographer Raphaël O’Byrne, along with editor Valérie Loiseleux, set designer Paul Rouschop, and costume designer Agnès Noden. The entrancing color schemes and long two-shots in addition to spectacular sound by Benoît De Clerck immerse you in Green’s unique and unusual fantasy world.
The actors, who speak in Green’s trademark overly mannered and stiff style, occasionally look directly into the camera, speaking lines to the viewer, but The Son of Joseph, coproduced by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, never gets preachy. It’s a bizarrely entertaining tale of family, of fathers and sons, and mothers and sons, where all the details matter. Inside a church, Vincent witnesses musical ensemble Le Poème Harmonique perform a work in Latin by Domenico Mazzocchi about a mother dealing with the death of her son. Earlier, when Vincent turns down a friend’s offer to join his sperm-selling operation, it’s not merely because he might find the job distasteful; deep down, he doesn’t want any other kid to go through life not knowing who his father is. He might say, “I don’t want to help people. I love no one.” But he proves himself wrong in this stunner.