'The Son of Joseph' ('Le Fils de Joseph'): Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival
Jocular art house fun with a serious message at its core.

The latest film from U.S.-born, France-based director Eugene Green ('La Sapienza') stars Fabrizio Rongione, Mathieu Amalric and newcomer Victor Ezenfis.

A fatherless young Parisian sets out to meet his creator in The Son of Joseph (Le Fils de Joseph), the latest film from writer-director Eugene Green. The U.S.-born, France-based filmmaker here continues his exploration of transmission between the generations and through art that he started in his previous film, La Sapienza (2014), tackling ideas of fatherhood in relation to the Holy Family through the story of Vincent, a surly and impressionable teenager who blames his mother — not coincidentally called Marie — for not having a father.

Lighter than most of Green’s other work, with more clearly emphasized scenes of satire and a more playful sense of storytelling, this could very well travel further afield than Green’s more cerebral efforts, even though there’s no sense in any way that the director has compromised his vision to reach a (slightly) broader audience. The fact that this was co-produced by the Dardenne brothers can only help.

Freckle-faced and wistful Vincent (newcomer Victor Ezenfis), who looks like he’s 15 or thereabouts, lives with his single mom, Marie (Natacha Regnier), in the center of Paris. She has never told him who his father is and when the film starts, Vincent has reached that age where he simply needs to know. He finally manages to find out his old man is an influential publisher, Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric). To get to know him better, the shy but cunning Vincent copies the key of Pormenor’s office — which is, bien sur, in a chic Parisian hotel — and hides under the divan to eavesdrop on the stranger.

What quickly becomes clear is that Oscar isn’t the father any boy would dream of, forgetting how many children he has with his wife — “I don’t bother with details,” he says — and cheating on her with his busty, “versatile” secretary (Julia de Gasquet). This discovery, combined with Vincent’s odd obsession with the Caravaggio painting The Sacrifice of Isaac (the Uffizi version), in which Abraham holds a knife against his son Isaac’s throat, results in the boy doing the opposite and handcuffing and gagging his father (who still doesn’t know his identity). But Vincent’s indecisiveness — which, seen at its most black-and-white, involves choices between good and bad — has been a leitmotif since the start of The Son of Joseph, and when he finally puts the blade against Oscar’s gorge, he runs away from what he’s done without fully achieving his goal.

The works of Green — also an expert in Baroque theater, which is highly artificial — aren’t realistic in any sense of the word. Already in one of the first scenes, in which Vincent and a buddy exchange a few words over a profitable sperm-selling operation, it’s clear from the terse, perfect-diction delivery and cinematographer Raphael O’Byrne’s static two-shot that we’re in an art film, not a teenage comedy. So audiences are unlikely to fear for Oscar’s life when he’s attacked by his son, as the scene, staged in a rather matter-of-factly manner, is amply foreshadowed and clearly there to illustrate something about the character of the two men rather than artificially ratchet up the tension.

The film’s main exchange of ideas and emotions — their constant coupling a Green hallmark — however, occurs between Vincent and the adult Joseph (frequent Dardenne collaborator and La Sapienza star Fabrizio Rongione), who is Oscar’s ne’er-do-well brother. They meet by chance and become friends by looking at the world together in the parks, streets and museums of summertime Paris. A visit to the Louvre acquaints Vincent with two religious masterpieces: Philippe de Champaigne’s The Dead Christ and Joseph the Carpenter by Georges de la Tour. The latter painting unlocks the entire meaning of the film when Vincent casually remarks that Joseph isn’t little Jesus’s real father but Joseph (the movie character) suggests that he became a real father through the presence of his son.

The Son of Joseph might be filled with talk about and visual allusions to God, Biblical art, life, parenthood, filialness and relationships, but the way the material is handled is jocular without betraying the more serious ideas at its core. There’s a reason the two main adult characters are called Joseph and Marie, and Green gently plays around with the expectations of the viewers. Something similar applies to the film’s division in Biblically inspired chapters, with names such as The Sacrifice of Abraham, The Flight to Egypt and The Golden Calf (the latter the feature’s most out-and-out comic set piece involving a satirical look at the ridiculously self-obsessed publishing world, with a cameo by Maria de Medeiros as a crackpot literary critic). The constant combination of highbrow and lowbrow elements is undeniably French but also very effective.

Indeed, the film’s final act contains a delicious chase sequence involving helicopters, numerous police and an ass on the beach that is impressive even though it was clearly made on a shoestring budget and in the art house mold. It brings together several of the film’s underlying themes in a very satisfying manner, sending audiences out both a little wiser and a little happier.

Production companies: Coffee and Films, Les Films du fleuve, TSF, Film Factory, En haut les marches

Cast: Victor Ezenfis, Natacha Regnier, Fabrizio Rongione, Mathieu Amalric, Maria de Medeiros, Julia de Gasquet, Jacques Bonnaffe, Christelle Prot, Adrien Michaux, Louise Moaty, Claire Lefilliatre, Vincent Dumestre

Writer-Director: Eugene Green

Producers: Francine Jacob, Didier Jacob

Co-producers: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Director of photography: Raphael O’Byrne

Production designer: Paul Rouschop

Costume designer: Agnes Noden

Editor: Valerie Loiseleux

Music: Adam Michna Z. Otradovic, Emilio de Cavalieri, Domenico Mazzocchi

Casting: Alexandre Nazarian

Sales: Les Films du Losange

No rating, 115 minutes