BY STEVE ERICKSON | Expatriates can act strange, particularly if they didn’t leave their home country out of necessity but because they were disgusted by its culture. Eugène Green, an American director who lives and works in France, is a case in point. He now refers to the US as “la barbarie,” and don’t get him started on the subject of Quentin Tarantino films. In the ultimate un-American gesture, he cast himself as an Iraqi refugee in his previous film, “La Sapienza.”
Green is attracted to architecture and baroque music – two pieces of which are heard in his latest film, “Son of Joseph.” In a lot of ways, he’s become more archetypally French – drawn to classical music and ‘60s art films – than young French people. You can exit his films without hearing a note of pop music or seeing the diverse France that’s given birth to a far-right backlash.
But I don’t think that’s worth criticizing: it’s obvious that Green’s films are extremely subjective fantasies. He’s not filming the real Paris, but one that exists only in his head. It probably existed there long before he moved to Paris.
A family built from the longings of a fatherless teenage boy
Vincent (Victor Ezenfis) is a bored teenager who lives with his single mother, Marie (Natacha Régnier). While they don’t spend all their time fighting, their relationship seems difficult. He resents the fact that he grew up fatherless; she resents the fact that Vincent’s biological father asked her to abort him and then abandoned her when she said no. Vincent gets involved in the literary world, attending a party held by publisher Oscar (Mathieu Amalric, looking older than he ever has before). Oscar’s brother Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione) shows up and bickers with his sibling, but he impresses Vincent, who befriends Joseph. Soon, Joseph begins spending time with Marie, and the Old Testament references strewn throughout the film come around to the New Testament.
Green’s direction of actors draws heavily on Robert Bresson, who referred to his performers as “models” and tried to use their gestures rather than the qualities typically seen as expressive acting. At the beginning of “Son of Joseph,” opera plays over a scene showing the legs of people walking down a staircase. At various points in this film, Green fragments his actors’ bodies the way Bresson did, often leaving their heads out of the frame to concentrate on their hands and legs. However, he departs from his master in other ways. His “direction” of natural settings is closer to the realism of Éric Rohmer. He has a true sensitivity to color, evident in a scene where Vincent, Marie, and Joseph all wear blue clothes against the backdrop of a sky and sea roughly the same shade.
At first, Green’s sense of whimsy feels rather curdled, and his sense of humor misses the mark more often than not. His film is divided into sections, based on Bible passages. The first one, “The Sacrifice of Abraham,” opens with two men trying to kill a rat. While they don’t succeed – and the end credits let us know that no animals were harmed in the making of “Son of Joseph” – it opens the film up on a decidedly pissy note. Green’s satire of the publishing world continues in this fashion, with a ditzy reporter who wants to interview Proust at a party thrown by Oscar and idiotic gossip about “catamites.”
Fabrizio Rongione gives the film’s best performance – better than Amalric, who stays hidden behind stubble and his character’s perpetual hangover – and plays its most appealing character. Green’s tone is uneven, but it gradually grows kinder as he (metaphorically) races through the Bible toward the birth of Jesus. While Bresson seems to have begun as a devout Catholic and ended up an atheist, it’s not uncommon for French filmmakers to take religious metaphors and use them without any true belief: take Bruno Dumont’s “The Life of Jesus” or the early films of Philippe Garrel.
I suppose it’s not surprising that there would be a conservative streak – temperamentally, if not politically – in Green’s work, given his obsession with the past. Still, it’s a little disappointing how quickly Vincent, Joseph, and Marie turn into a cozy nuclear family. While I could point out other flaws in “Son of Joseph,” the film won me over in the end. At the risk of sounding like Dr. Phil, it’s a lesson in becoming a better person.
SON OF JOSEPH | Directed by Eugène Green | Kino Lorber | In French with English subtitles | Opens Jan. 13 | Film Society of Lincoln Center, Elinor Bunin Munroe Theater | 144 W. 65th St. | filmlinc.org