“Details bore me,” declares Mathieu Amalric‘s Oscar more than once in Eugène Green‘s witty formalist triumph “Le Fils De Joseph” (“Son of Joseph”), unapologetically excusing his inability to remember the names of his three children. Not only does his deadpan-casual-hilarious delivery immediately declare him the villain of the piece, in being an outright rejection of the film’s preoccupation with all things paternal, it also puts him on the outside of Green’s fabulously minute approach which takes the phrase “God is in the detail” to new heights of literalism. Shot through with an intensely pleasurable intellectual playfulness, this is the American-born French director’s most accomplished and surprising film to date, boasting his trademark thoughtfulness and precision, yet also being almost puppyishly easy to love.
Drollery is easy to achieve if you don’t care too much about the characters who inhabit its empty spaces and laconic silences, and if your ultimate aim is no higher than to point out the nihilistic absurdity of life. It’s much harder, however, to be creatively, optimistically droll, and to find in life’s absurdity a cause for hopefulness and defiant celebration. But “Le Fils De Joseph” does exactly that, using Green’s hyper non-naturalistic dialogue and shooting style, which is composed of static, often symmetrical shots in which the characters frequently look straight to the camera though they’re talking to each other, to frame a parable about the consolations and the limitations of art when it comes to more vital, basic functions like love, faith, and family.
Vincent (newcomer Victor Ezenfis) is a somewhat lonely teenager, first described as “weird” by the two companions he abandons in the act of torturing a trapped rat. He stares endlessly at a print of Caravaggio‘s gruesome “The Sacrifice of Isaac” in his bedroom and gets an illicit thrill, indicated by the tiniest of smiles on his usually impassive face, from shoplifting small tools from a local store, only to return them immediately. He refuses to help out with an entrepreneurial friend’s new business wheeze — selling his semen on the internet — even though the friend can’t get production to meet supply. Vincent’s new obsession is to discover who his father is, because his mother (Natacha Régnier, radiating an almost palpable aura of worried kindness) refuses to tell him. But when he discovers the elusive man’s identity, wouldn’t you know it, it turns out to be fastidiously detail-averse, philandering publishing magnate Oscar Pormenor (Amalric) — no one’s idea of father of the year. Through a variety of contrivances that would be slapstick if they weren’t played with so straight a face, a fleeing Vincent is then mistaken for a dazzling new literary talent by chronically forgetful art critic Violette, played wickedly by a terrific Maria de Madeiros, as permanently sozzled as she is eternally stylish.
Amid encounters with the great and the good and the satirically swiped-at of the Paris art elite, Vincent also meets Oscar’s dispossessed brother Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione, star of Green’s last film “La Sapienza” as well as “Two Days One Night” from the Dardenne brothers, who produce here). Bonding as they wander around Paris together, Vincent and Joseph trade observations about art and God, and a chance remark — about how Jesus may not have been St. Joseph’s son but that St. Joseph put in the hours and so basically became his father — gives Vincent the idea of testing the old “you can’t choose your family” adage and introducing his new friend to his mother. Joseph, meet Marie.
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The biblical references that abound are never overdone, rather they come as sweet little surprises in a film that’s filled with multicolored pick-and-mix referentialism, taking in Jules Verne and 17th century chamber music; religious iconography and Truffaut; the Paris street photography of Cartier-Bresson and Doiseau and the Baroque theater tradition. But the lightness with which Green employs the kind of symbolism that is usually so heavily pregnant with Meaning and Importance that it might as well have a stop sign erected beside it attached to a 6-volume explanation, is a relief. Calmed by Raphael O’Byrne‘s resolutely tranquil camera, there’s a sense that it’s okay not to parse every passing nod for significance — they are the means by which Green is communicating, not the end. “Le Fils de Joseph” is fun, even before the donkey appears.
But that’s not to say it’s the finger-painted daubs of a child playing with a palette they don’t understand. Green’s polyamory for all these disciplines — art, architecture, cinema, music, theater — isn’t just broad, it’s deep and discerning. You get the feeling that what we see here are merely the tips of many icebergs of hard-won, well-earned knowledge, it’s just that Green is the diametric opposite of a show-off. And that’s what makes his film, despite the stiff formality of his style, and the relative obscurity of many of his areas of expertise, feel so genuine, generous and joyful. Art, religion, music, literature — all are valuable, but not so much for themselves as for the means they provide for people to connect, and then get on with more important things. [B+/A-]