The Son of Joseph
The wall above Vincent’s bed is dominated by a print of Caravaggio’s
which shows the bearded patriarch Abraham pinning the head of his screaming son to a rock and brandishing a sharp knife at his throat as an angel intervenes to stay his hand. Is it any wonder the lad is a little strange?
Strange is the defining characteristic of this feature by the American expatriate Eugène Green, a Brooklynite who emigrated to Paris almost 50 years ago, and stayed. He added an accent grave to his name, became fascinated with Baroque drama, and founded a theater company to produce the works of poetic dramatists like Racine in their original declamatory style. Why is this relevant? Because this movie, which can best be described as a trancelike Christian allegorical farce, is performed with that same stilted, declamatory 17th-century-influenced delivery.
His actors face one another or face the camera and speak their lines with little natural inflection. They move slowly and pose in tableaux. For a while it’s perplexing. But after a period of apprenticeship, it begins to take on a subversively funny quality, and to make an odd kind of sense.
Green (who appears in a cameo as a wild-haired hotel concierge) didn’t start making movies till he was past fifty. And he’s been compared to Robert Bresson, which isn’t bad company.
The movie unfolds in biblically themed chapters: The Sacrifice of Abraham, The Flight Into Egypt. Vincent (Victor Ezenfis) is a teenage boy being raised by a single mother, Marie (Natacha Régnier), who rebuffs his attempts to learn who his father is. On the whole he’s a good, if unhappy, kid. He doesn’t join his schoolmates in the torture of a rat, and he turns down a friend’s offer to join as a partner in his online spermsupply business.
One day he breaks into his mother’s desk and finds that he’s the son of Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric), a big shot in the publishing world. He tracks the man down and discovers him to be an egotistical married cad who is boffing his secretary and can’t remember how many children he has (“Details bore me,” he says).
Oscar has a brother, Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione), a kindly ne’er-dowell. Vincent meets him by chance, not knowing who his brother is, and they develop a bond. Joseph’s fatherly kindness draws Vincent out of his shell. He begins to smile. He begins to make plans. He arranges a sly fix-up of Joseph with his mother, Marie, and the Nativity allusions just keep on coming. This is a movie about fatherhood, and the inference is that nurture is more important than nature, and that there are better templates for the position than Abraham, or Oscar. Or the sperm bank. — Jonathan Richards