Eugène Green’s first feature produced with the Dardenne brothers, Le Fils de Joseph could easily be interpreted as a contemporary riff on The Nativity. Divided into five parts, each relating to a passage in The Bible, Le Fils de Joseph follows Vincent (Victor Ezenfis), a young boy who’s been lovingly raised by his single mother Marie (Natacha Régnier) yet remains determined to uncover the identity of his absent father. There’s an alluring alchemy to the films of French formalist Green, his rigorous adhesion to the conventions of the Baroque theatre somehow combining weighty philosophical ideas with sardonic wit and anchoring it all to serious themes like depression and isolation.
Victor’s pilgrimage allows Green to impart his distinctive style – particularly his rigorously centred, alternating close-ups – to articulate his views on parenthood and the evolution of the family construct. If that all sounds overly theoretical or pretentious then it shouldn’t. Green has a wry sense of humour and although Le Fils de Joseph concerns itself with Biblical art and filial relations, this lofty material is handled lightheartedly. Vincent discovers his father to be Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric), a narcissistic publisher who’s either swilling champagne at elaborate book launches or seducing his receptionist.
Vincent, discovering his father to be a vile egomaniac, decides to get his revenge and cultivates a plan heavily influenced by Caravaggio’s The Sacrifice of Isaac, which adorns his bedroom. Along the way Green treats us to some breathtaking shots of Paris and one of cinema’s most curious sex scenes, ingeniously filmed from underneath a chaise longue. There’s even a chase sequence, albeit a characteristically arthouse one, with Victor, Joseph and Marie eluding the police without ever breaking a sweat. They’re even joined by a donkey along the way.
Eccentric, graceful and utterly charming, Le Fils de Joseph is inertia transubstantiated into art, with Green combining formal precision with rigidly garrulous personalities to create a dreamlike impression of reality. With each character talking directly into the soul of the viewer it’s impossible to escape the romance and joy that emanates from the screen. An exercise in economy and style that necessitates a willingness to become entirely possessed by cinema, Le Fils de Joseph won’t be for everyone. Regardless, this exquisite rumination on life, love and misplaced paternity might just be Green’s best, most accessible film to date.
The 2016 Berlin Film Festival takes place between 11-21 February. Follow our coverage here.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble