Permeated with baroque influences, the singularly witty and insightful films of American-born French auteur Eugène Green exhibit a profound concern with the making of identity. His 2001 debut Toutes les nuits, inspired by Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, chronicled the romantic and ideological formation of two disenchanted youths in the wake of the May 1968 uprisings in France. With his breakthrough film, Le Pont des Arts (2004), Green shifted his focus onto spirituality, and has been crafting compelling tales of awakening and enlightenment for the last decade. The Son of Joseph, his follow-up to the visually entrancing, erudite La Sapienza (2014)—the story of an embittered architect who experiences rebirth through an exploration of history—offers an exhilarating survey of the filmmaker’s philosophically imbued, idiosyncratic universe.
An extension of Green’s interest in frustrated protagonists searching for meaning, The Son of Joseph centers upon Vincent (Victor Ezenfis), an angry and conflicted teenager who yearns to discover his father’s identity. Unable to extract answers from his angelic, self-sacrificing mother—a Virgin Mary figure portrayed with dignified composure and heartrending pathos by Natacha Régnier—Vincent decides to take matters into his own hands. His quest leads him to a pompous and gossipy party of Parisian literary elites, depicted by Green with a delightful, biting sense of humor resulting from his first-hand knowledge of that milieu as a seasoned novelist. Realizing that the father he longed for so desperately is a delusional and despotic king, Vincent attempts to punish him via a scrupulous reenactment of Caravaggio’s The Sacrifice of Isaac (a copy of which hangs in the teenager’s bedroom). But just as Vincent is about to slit his victim’s throat, his attention is arrested by a beam of sunlight on the pristine white door across from him: it’s a moment of divine revelation that stops him from murder and leads to his meeting with the titular surrogate father who infuses his life with purpose and hope.
Some viewers may be quick to dismiss The Son of Joseph, a whimsical take on the Nativity story, for its familiar narrative and stripped-down style. But it is precisely the clarity of expression achieved through simplification that makes for the mystifying beauty of Green’s film. His approach to composition and staging, deeply informed by Baroque art, rests on a clash between harmony and movement. Unlike traditional directors inclined to reveal exposition through dialogue or action, Green employs an imaginative compositional device to introduce his bewildered protagonist. In a perfectly balanced long shot of a street, two men busy with their phones bump into each other and then depart in opposite directions, leading the eye to the center of the frame where Vincent emerges into view. In addition to serving as a parody of modern-day alienation, the scene epitomizes Green’s brilliantly orchestrated, sharp, and dynamic mise en scène that speaks to the senses.
The filmmaker’s equally meticulous and radical direction of actors, often described as “Bressonian” because of its emphasis on emotional restraint and heightened diction, is designed to reveal the characters’ inner lives. Confrontational moments between Vincent and his mother acquire a transfixing intensity through the extended use of direct address, and demonstrate Green’s knack for eliciting intimate and transcendental performances from his leads. The director’s artistic project crystallizes in a transporting scene depicting a Baroque recital in a dimly lit church. As Vincent becomes absorbed in the ecstatic, trance-like performance, time vanishes and deep healing occurs: it’s a spiritual journey toward the realization of the self, in which past and future merge into a magical and eternal present.
Yonca Talu is a filmmaker living in New York. She grew up in Istanbul and recently graduated from NYU Tisch.
Frame rate: a long-awaited translation of the late French critic’s writings reveals a fascination with what’s included in the frame and what’s left out, and the moral and political stakes of that choice