If Robert Bresson had an obsession with hands as metaphors and symbols, then Eugène Green displays a similar preoccupation with feet in his new film The Son of Joseph. There are many static, ground level shots of feet walking into rooms, out of buildings, down into subway stations. Many of his shooting locations seemed selected based solely on their ability to satisfyingly creak and crunch as his characters pensively, hesitatingly walk across them. But to what end? Ordinarily feet could be interpreted as symbols of movement or personal agency—characters use their feet to carry themselves towards their own destinies; a shackled foot represents incarceration. But Green’s feet seem curiously absent of meaning, mostly because his characters spend much of the film in existential stasis.
When we first meet our Parisian teenage protagonist Vincent (Victor Ezenfis), we see him pickpocket something from a hardware store, pause on the street outside, then return it unnoticed. When a friend asks him to join a start-up business selling sperm on the internet, he turns him away with a blasé excuse. His first real demonstration of self-agency comes when he roots through his single mother’s belongings to find evidence of his birth father. When he discovers that his father is Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric), a cruel, near-sociopathic book publisher, he breaks into one of his parties only to decide not to confront him. Later he sneaks into Oscar’s office, hides under a couch, and once more refuses to reveal himself. Finally, disgusted with Oscar’s callousness towards his mother and his new wife and children, he steals into Oscar’s office a second time, jumps him, ties him up, prepares to slit his throat, and chickens out once more. It would be one thing if Ezenfis demonstrated any kind of outward pathos during these scenes. But much like with Bresson, Green seems to have deliberately rehearsed his actors to a point of exhaustion, draining all emotion, color, and liveliness from their performances until they seem like cold robots reciting pre-programmed lines. Bresson did so because he sought to establish a new, distinctly cinematic mode of visual language. But I can’t figure out Green’s reasons for apparently coaching his actors similarly.
Described as a “nativity story reboot” by the New York Film Festival, the film comes to life in the third act when Vincent meets Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione), Oscar’s ex-junkie brother who wants to retreat from Paris into a more honest life raising cattle in the countryside. Joseph becomes the father figure Vincent never had: they visit art galleries, tell each other jokes, and talk about God. Beyond the rote reinterpretation of the Nativity story (which climaxes with Vincent, his mother, and Joseph literally fleeing Oscar and the authorities with the help of a borrowed donkey), a deep Catholic spirituality bubbles beneath The Son of Joseph: his characters talk openly of angels and messages from God; Vincent keeps a poster of Caravaggio’s second Sacrifice of Isaac painting in his room; there’s a breath-taking sequence in an old church where Vincent and Joseph watch artists perform an aria. This earnest spirituality keeps the film from collapsing under the weight of its own ponderous metaphors, much like João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist, another film that debuted in America this past New York Film Festival. But many of Green’s creative decisions seem inexplicable. There’s more obvious method behind Green’s madness than the majority of directors currently working the art house/film festival circuit. I’m sure a second viewing would prove gratifying, but I suspect the majority of average viewers will find the film too obtuse, frustrating, and hollow to want one.