American-born French director Eugène Green is known as a practitioner of the Baroque theater technique, in particular his ability to translate that tradition into cinematic form. If that sounds like a hard sell, you’ve never seen a Eugene Green movie.
Despite their cerebral foundations (long pauses, stilted line reading), Green’s movies are characterized by dry humor and emotion that creeps into richly conceived stories. Using classic art as his backdrop, Green reshapes it into engaging new forms. “The Portuguese Nun” was a humorous look at an attempt to adapt a 17th century novel, and his marvelous “La Sapienza” followed the relatable plight of a modern architect against the backdrop of post-Renaissance architecture. Both movies manage to transform their topics into storytelling devices with unexpected twists.
With “Son of Joseph,” Green uses a 17th century biblical painting by Carvaggio to animate the contemporary tale of an angsty teen searching for the identity of his missing father. As usual, it’s both dense with ideas and disarmingly sweet. Opening the U.S. in the theatrical dead zone of early January, this cooly sophisticated character study provides the rare bright light at the start of the year.
Equal parts social satire and family drama, “Son of Joseph” focuses on young Parisian Vincent (Victor Ezenfis, a true discovery), an introverted teenager who wanders the streets with a stern expression frozen on his face; his concerned mother (a radiant Natacha Regnier) runs into a wall whenever she tries to engage her son, dodging his ongoing questions about his father’s identity.
Vincent, who keeps Caravaggio’s dramatic 1603 painting “Sacrifice of Isaac” affixed to his wall, draws some kind of eerie inspiration from the unsettling image of Abraham pressing his son to the altar, knife in hand, on the verge of a sacrifice only stoppable by divine intervention. It doesn’t take long to assume that Vincent’s frustrations could lead him to some kind of violent extreme, and eventually he gets there, but that’s only a fraction of the story.
By snooping through his mother’s old letters, Vincent eventually finds his elusive dad across town, and doesn’t like what he sees: Oscar (Mathieu Amalric) is a hotshot publishing executive who revels in a lavish lifestyle while keeping his relatives at arm’s length. But rather than confronting the man head-on, Vincent begins to stalk him.
In a brilliantly orchestrated sequence, Vincent hides beneath a sofa in Oscar’s office just long enough to witness the entirety of the man’s messy life. When Vincent returns to the location, the story takes a darker turn — before suddenly shifting tones, as Vincent finds an opportunity for redemption. Encountering Oscar’s aptly-named brother Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione, best known for Dardenne movies but also the star of “La Sapienza”), who maintains an icy relationship with his avaricious older sibling, Vincent finds a paternal figure willing to guide him through his troubled world in more rational terms.
And that’s when Green’s pensive narrative really kicks into high gear. Rongione gives Joseph a rugged edge that appeals to the alienated Vincent, the pair quickly bond even as Vincent keeps the truth about their familial relations a secret. In short order, they’re wandering a sculpture garden, picking through the highlights of the Louvre, taking in an opera performance and considering the epistemological ramifications of an empty pond. No longer trapped with a morose painting, Vincent discovers the brighter side of exploring life through art.
Once it gets this far, “Son of Joseph” doesn’t quite land a satisfying resolution, having established expectations of various confrontations that come and go with a shrug. “Son of Joseph” is a decidedly more accessible work than Green’s earlier features, and for that same reason decidedly less ambitious. At the same time, it’s a testament to Green’s unique approach that he underplays the most obvious components of the story while magnifying other details. Using a chapter-based structure that riffs on Vincent’s biblical obsessions, Green (who makes a terrific cameo as an eccentric, wisdom-spouting concierge) applies a quiet, patient approach embodies the malaise and confusion of the young protagonist, who can only interpret his surroundings with the ideological tools at his disposal.
Moreover, Green’s rigid approach to individual scenes, with stationary camerawork that oscillates between painterly master shots and extreme closeups of his characters’ faces, creates a constant sense of intrigue around small exchanges — as if the true meaning of their conversations eludes them, but they’re constantly searching for it anyway. There’s no precise reason why everyone winds up on the beach with a donkey in the movie’s closing moments, and yet the scene has a symbolic power nonetheless. In Green’s world, every moment is an unsolvable mystery that requires debate.
Green’s exuberant visuals and austere rhythms suggest Wes Anderson by way of Robert Bresson, although in reality, the combination belongs to Green alone. “These days, people seem to wallow in despair,” Joseph sighs, to which another character adds, “Or cynicism.” With “Son of Joseph,” Green explores the nature of those feelings, and figures out what it takes to overcome them with warmth.
The experience is akin to a brooding philosophical debate unfolding over several glasses of fine wine, as the conversation melts into a blur of half-formed thoughts and simpler upbeat vibes. There are worse fates.
“Son of Joseph” opens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York on Friday, with more cities scheduled in the coming weeks.