Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Aug 28, 2017 8:12 am 
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FABRIZIO RONGIONE, VICTOR EZENFIS IN THE SON OF JOSEPH

A warm fable about birth and parenthood

This newer film by Eugène Green, while still in his signature stilted, artificial style, works much, much better for me than his previous one, La Sapienza (NYFF 2014) perhaps because it is about a boy. It's officially about "Nativity," and ends with a Mary, a Joseph, and an ass, followed by the son, Vincent, the teenager whose search and pursuit the story's all about. The lectures about failed marriage and baroque architecture in La Sapienza failed to engage me despite its beautiful accompanying images and Lake Maggiore scenery. This time we're not in the Italian lake country, but right in Paris, in the 3rd arrondissement: that's an advantage, too. These are home places and home feelings and basic things, and the formalized, slightly static action (spoken with respect for every vowel sound and all the liaisons) is serious and intense, dangerous too, though also frivolous and light and jokey.

Vincent, 17 (Victor Ezenfis, an appealing newcomer, who can do raw anger and puckish humor equally well), is a sullen lycée student, mean to his kind and loving mother, Marie (Natacha Régnier), a nurse, hating everyone, rejecting the cruel and exploitative plans of several classmates early on. He no longer accepts her assertions that he has no father and breaks into her desk and finds a name. This leads him to Oscar Pormenor (Matthieu Alalric), an absolute heel, and a highly successful publisher in the center of a snobbish, absurd literary world Vincent glimpses at a cocktail party, and at Pormenor's offices at the Hotel Cluny, spying on his misbehavior with a secretary from under a divan and later menacing him and running away.

In his flight he immediately runs into the hotel bar and finds Oscar's no-account brother, Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione, also in La Sapienza), who's just appealed unsuccessfully to Oscar for funds to raise cows in their native Normandy. Joseph and Vincent strike up an instant bond. As well as a love of corny puns mocking the bourgeoisie, it's also clear that Vincent has an instinctive sense of good and evil, which he can detect equally well in animals or in humans. And Green can mock modern things, as with the two cell-phone users who run into each other on the street early on. How retro is Green? In person would he be a meany and a scold? It seems not, given the benevolent good humor he projects with his fuzzy hair and brush mustache in his cameo as the hotel's receptionist.

The film is structured via Christian myth into five chapters, The Sacrifice of Abraham, The Golden Calf, The Sacrifice of Isaac (Vincent has a large reproduction of Caravaggio's painting of that event on his bedroom wall), The Carpenter, and The Flight to Egypt - which as Richard Brody puts it in his admiring and informative review, "distill Biblical mythology into a grand and overarching drama of fathers and sons." There is also forgiveness, if not repentance. But what Vincent is doing in this movie, if too serious and risky to call it a lark, still is an adventure, and there's a continual element of play. As usual there is baroque music, here both recitation and singing in a church.

Eugène Green left New York at 23, rejecting America as a barbarian place, studied arts and letters extensively in Paris, became a French citizen at 29, and at 30, the same year he was an extra on Robert Bresson's The Devil, Probably, started the Théâtre de la Sapience, promoting baroque theater and baroque diction. After 20 years of this he switched to film, though he has still put on performances of Racine and Bossuet in churches. His orientation is Christian and moral. His films, which early on drew the favor of Jean-Luc Godard, show an influence of Bresson in the way characters are framed in closeup, centered, addressing the camera directly, to which Mike D'Angelo has attributed an effect of "pure, unconditional compassion" as powerful as the lethal one of "Madame Psychosis" in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. But D'Angelo held back from making this one of his year's favorites (though it's still in his rigorously rated top 30) for its "implicitly reactionary viewpoint on single motherhood" and Vincent's "asshole" behavior toward his mother. Aren't these just aspects of the film's rigor and its Christianity? It may be not single motherhood that's worried about but loneliness. Vincent's fixing his mom up with his new best friend and mentor is a heavenly gesture.

This film, Eugène Green's most appealing and accessible by all accounts (I've seen only the two), affirms fatherhood and family and moral responsibility in Christian-inspired terms in a light hearted fable with a touching finale that evokes the manners and outlooks of Bresson, Wes Anderson, Manoel de Oliveira, and above all Green, his sometimes stiff, aesthetic style this time turned warm and humorous. Let's not forget that the ultra-humanistic Dardenne brothers were also influenced by Bresson, and they are coproducers of this film.

The Son of Joseph/Le fils de Joseph, 113 mins., debuted 12 Feb. 2016 at Berlin; at least a dozen other international festivals including the NYFF (Oct. 2016), London, Torino, Karlovy and Melbourne. French release 20 Apr. 2016 to rave reviews (AlloCinee press rating 3.9). US limited theatrical release 13 Jan. 2017. Viewed on Netflix Streaming USA 27 Aug. 2017.

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