No one behaves quite like a human being in Eugene Green’s “Le Fils de Joseph,” yet a soulful sense of humanity emerges from their heightened declamations anyway. Though it’s still steeped in its maker’s very particular formalities of language and performance, this honey-drizzled, farcically funny fable of an unhappy teenager seeking a father — first the one he has, then the one he deserves — could prove to be Green’s most commercially accessible work, even among arthouse auds not necessarily attuned to its millefeuille layering of theological symbolism. (Its mirthful contemporary remix of the Nativity story, however, surely can’t escape anyone’s notice.) Green makes films for anyone willing to enter his peculiar universe of expressive purity and (mostly) suspended cynicism, to which “Joseph” reps one of his most beguiling invitations.
This is Green’s first team-up with producers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, whose increasingly catholic arthouse portfolio also includes this year’s Berlin competish title “Hedi.” “Catholic” may indeed be an operative word in this newly forged collaboration: The faith’s very structured principles of morality inform Green’s artifice-driven vision as playfully as they do, to rather more sober effect, the Belgian brothers’ contrastingly social-realist studies in human kindness and weakness. “Le Fils de Joseph” — a title that translates as “Son of Joseph,” about which we can draw our own Christian conclusions — has little time for sermonizing in its religious observations. Indeed, when Raphael O’Byrne’s camera does eventually enter a church, it’s merely to appreciate the finery — and the madrigal music, courtesy of famed ensemble Le Poeme Harmonique, whose reinterpretations of 16th- and 17th-century compositions by Mazzocchi, de’ Cavalieri and Otradovic lend the film on otherworldly lilt from the opening credits onwards.
That credit sequence whimsically grazes the rushing, elegantly shod feet of the rush-hour crowd in central Paris — a city that appears to hold Green in another kind of quasi-spiritual thrall: Whether drinking in a rosy sunset over the Grand Palais, or watching late-afternoon idlers in the redesigned Les Halles gardens, the film sees unjaded beauty in even the city’s most over-subscribed tourist spots.
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Its open-hearted appreciation of the surrounding world is not initially shared by its protagonist Vincent (Victor Ezenfis, making a notable big-screen debut), a sullen high-schooler whose anguish over his unknown paternity is routinely taken out on his saintly, endless forbearing single mother Marie (Natacha Regnier). Hostile and regarded with indifference even by his supposed friends — one of whom, in a thematically salient running gag, is attempting to run a private sperm bank — Vincent spends much of his time in his spartan room, staring a little too intently at a forbidding print of Caravaggio’s “The Sacrifice of Isaac.” (The painting also provides the title for the third of the film’s five chapters; others, varying in degree of cryptic Biblical significance, include “The Sacrifice of Abraham,” “The Golden Calf,” “The Carpenter” and “The Flight Into Egypt.”)
A deviously resourceful kid, Vincent eventually tracks down the identity of his father: arrogant, high-powered publisher Oscar (Mathieu Amalric), a serial philanderer who can’t be troubled to remember the names or ages of even his three legitimate children. (“I have no taste for details,” he wearily tells his exasperated wife — Green’s well-mannered, baroque writing style doesn’t preclude the odd deadpan zinger.) The boy’s plan to covertly observe his dad is complicated when he’s mistaken for a prodigious young novelist by daffily pretentious book critic Violette (a priceless Maria de Medeiros), ushering him awkwardly into the champagne-fueled gossip circuit of the Parisian literary scene — an easy target of nonetheless tickling satire by Green, a dramatist who can somehow muddle irony and earnestness in the same effervescent cocktail.
A further twist of fate, meanwhile, diverts Vincent’s revenge scheme, when he runs into Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione), a benevolent, paternalistic would-be farmer who also happens to be Oscar’s estranged brother. To reveal more would needlessly taint enjoyment of Green’s sweetly bobbing carousel of mistaken identity — or, in some cases, identity that is at last discovered through error. The helmer’s storytelling tone is a tricky, opalescent thing, embracing interludes of boudoir comedy and cornball meet-cutes against a stirring, simple backdrop of moral conscientiousness: Sly, slippery French wordplay (not all of which translates well to subtitles) sits beside such unadorned rhetorical counsel as, “Listen to the voice of God. He is in us. He tells us to love.” (The subtitles, incidentally, don’t even cover the film’s single heartiest laugh: A closing-credits disclaimer relating to one animal extra’s post-shoot future. Green, unlike Oscar, has a delicious taste for the most trivial of details.)
It’s far from an easy script to play, but Green’s ensemble successfully comes at it from a variety of positions, ranging from Ezenfis’ raw, uninflected sincerity to Amalric’s ever-enjoyable air of tumble-dried loucheness. Between them lies the bright-eyed theatrical clarity of Regnier and Rongione, both previously versed Green collaborators and both entirely wonderful here as the film’s anchors of vulnerable goodness, Marie and Joseph. Their performances spring most vividly to life via Green’s most eccentric distinguishing technique: his exactingly centered, conversationally alternated close-ups, in which the actors — artificially and exquisitely lit on tactile Kodak film by O’Byrne — deliver their lines as if staring through the camera, to a soul-connected listener behind the lens. It remains a divisive trademark that nonetheless provides the film with many of its most moving moments: Even Nenette the donkey, an improbable star of the pic’s fifth act, nails her straight-to-camera gaze.