We’re introduced to the protagonist of Son of Joseph as he silently observes the tortured of a trapped rat. Two of his schoolmates jab thin steel pins at the frightened rodent. “Try to poke one of its eyes out” one urges. “I can’t, he’s too clever,” the other replies. Our hero promptly leaves, finding himself to have more in common with the rat than his supposed friends.
If you’re unfamiliar with the work of Eugène Green you have a weird road ahead of you. He’s an American-born French filmmaker with a tendency towards brain numbingly glacial pacing, intentionally monotone performances, compositions static to the point of fossilization and characters who generally end scenes by gazing blankly into the lens. His style is definitely an acquired taste, catering for those with reservoirs of patience and the ability to tolerate some pretty artsy fartsy filmmaking.
Our lonely teenage hero Vincent (the strikingly handsome Victor Ezenfis), has grown up without a father. His mother Marie (Natacha Régnier) explains that he just doesn’t have one, a response greeted with skepticism. This is borne out by some furtive rummaging in his mother’s desk, eventually turning up a letter marked ‘return to sender,’ This is a plea to hoity-toity publisher Oscar Pormenor (a very funny Mathieu Almaric), asking him to simply recognize the existence of Vincent, the son he has long since abandoned.
And so Vincent hits the streets of Paris, on a quest to find out who his father really is. After infiltrating a swanky book launch and then breaking his father’s office and hiding under a chaise lounge as he conducts his business (mainly getting busy with his sexy secretary), Vincent has his answer: his dad is a total dick.
His curiosity morphs into anger, marked by him ominously staring at a wall-size print of Caravaggio’s The Sacrifice of Isaac. Then we meet Oscar’s brother and Vincent’s uncle, Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione). Joseph’s quiet, contemplative sort whose ambitions stretch as far as keeping a herd of cows, he and Vincent hit it off and spend lazy afternoons wandering through cultural Paris. They stop in front of Caravaggio’s St. Joseph the Carpenter and Vincent remarks that Joseph was not Jesus’ real father. Joseph responds “through his son, he became a father.”
Ding ding ding! There’s ‘yer meaning folks. If you still didn’t get it, Green eventually supplies Joseph, Marie and Vincent with a donkey, which Marie proceeds to ride around on. Even aside from all that, the film is liberally stuffed with Biblical concerns, from chapter titles like The Golden Calf to more straightforward scenes where Joseph and Vincent sit around in a sunny Paris park and discuss faith.
Green is, understandably, often compared to Robert Bresson, whose classics Diary of a Country Priest and Au Hasard Balthazar explore faith in a similarly intellectual, meditative and rigorously composed manner as this. The subtle presence of the divine elevates what could arguably be a pretty staid family drama (dad sucks, son forms stronger surrogate family) into something more high-mindedly universal.
Being cool, calm and meditative is all well and good (and I generally don’t mind a film that takes its sweet time), but Green’s languorous pacing eventually got under my skin. For example, Vincent and Joseph walk through a park and decide to have lunch together. They turn around and walk back into the frame, up through the park and around the corner. Then we cut away. I get that this is chilled out, rhythmic filmmaking, but dammit, couldn’t the rhythm be just a teensy bit quicker?
As for the mannered performances, which boil down to two people standing still at arms distance from one another rattling off their lines in monotone, they started out reminding me of Yorgos Lanthimos’ excellent The Lobster, mixed with a smidge of Wes Anderson. Then it began to remind me a little more of Napoleon Dynamite, and not in a particularly good way.
To add insult to injury, the film is crammed with glaringly obvious Apple computer product placement. An opportunity is never wasted to show off a shiny new Macbook or iPhone, with the Apple logo constantly front, centre and brightly illuminated. Ordinarily, I don’t mind this kind of thing; if product placement means a film gets made then so be it. But to have it so blatant in a sincere art film about Christian faith and fatherhood leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
I can’t deny that Eugène Green is a talented, idiosyncratic director and his Son of Joseph has many visual and intellectual qualities to boast about. But it’s a film I appreciated much more than I actually enjoyed.
Son of Joseph is an unquestionably smart, good-looking film, but I appreciate it more than I enjoyed it.