There is something quietly iconoclastic about Eugène Green’s latest film Le Fils de Joseph, and the clue is quite clearly in the name: The Son of Joseph. This is not the story of Jesus, though it still retains elements of the nativity story, nor is it technically about the son of Joseph, at least not in the traditional sense. The title is a misnomer – this is a tale not of family but of kin – and says more about the film’s tone than anything else.
For The Son of Joseph is misleading in the same way that a joke is misleading; Green must first establish some form of expectation if he is to have any hope of subverting it later. As Christianity Today notes in its review of the film: “The Son of Joseph is a film rife with Biblical allusions, though it’s hardly a Bible film (and certainly not a ‘faith-based’ one)” .
Rather, these references serve as a sort of punchline -- or Easter egg, if you will. The point is not to ridicule religion (the same review goes on to describe the film as “a delightful, if slightly naughty, light-hearted farce”) but to use Father and Son as a model on which to experiment. Fatherlessness no longer implies Immaculate Conception; nor is it a familial vacancy that still requires filling. So what is a father, or indeed the Father?
Green seems to provide the viewer with four possible answers, introduced chronologically as the judge, the creator, the absentee and the redeemer. Each is represented by a different character: a pair of schoolboys tormenting a trapped rat; a self-employed sperm donor struggling to keep up with demand; an aloof literary agent who forgets how many children he has; and a would-be farmer in search of a flock. All of this is almost beside the point, however, as Vincent (Victor Ezenfis) is not fatherless because some deity decreed it, but because his mother Marie (Natacha Régnier) did.
While for Green the question might be multiple choice, for Vincent there is only one obvious answer. The film is broken down into chapters, the first of which alludes to The Sacrifice of Isaac, a story in The Bible about a father, Abraham, who is ordered by God to slaughter his son, Isaac; only Green makes the curious decision to substitute father for son. The story is referenced again later on, this time correctly through Caravaggio’s eponymous painting from 1603. It’s strange that Green should choose this version of the painting, for the earlier incarnation’s controversial authorship might have added another layer to his film’s theme.
With Vincent clearly suspecting that he might have been scapegoated, if not sacrificed, it’s only natural that he should harbour such vengeful feelings for his biological father, soon revealed to be none other than Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric), a celebrity publisher and serial adulterer. Vicent’s sleuthing leads him into Pormenor’s suite, where he hears of how he doesn’t care much for the details of his life – his children included. His suspicions confirmed, Vincent lashes out; only like Abraham he can’t commit to the act of slaughter – one of the father; the other of the son.
Green’s treatment of this role reversal may be playful but it speaks to a surprisingly personal truth – the director, like his protagonist, has faced a crisis of identity all of his own. Just as The Son of Joseph suggests that kinship needn’t be dictated by birth, its filmmaker has clearly decided that neither should nationality. Despite being born and raised in Brooklyn, Green has identified as French for most of his life, having moved to Paris after a short stint in Germany and sat his French citizen test in the 1970s. He now refers disparagingly to his birthplace (née home country) as Barbaria, and dismisses American English as being good for commerce but little else. Instead, he thinks, dreams and writes in French.
Impressively, Green has also become something of an authority on Baroque art, having studied, performed and taught the French tradition. With its roots in the 17th and 18th Centuries, the ordered absurdity of Baroque art harks back to a time when, as Green himself puts it, otherwise rational people nevertheless believed in a higher reality – contradictory behaviour he goes on to describe as oxymoronic . In drama, as in art, this is often realised in the juxtaposition of fantasy and formalism. Just as Caravaggio -- an important influence on Baroque art – pioneered the chiaroscuro technique of bathing realistic figures in unnatural light, Green has his contemporary characters perform to camera in an almost confessionary manner.
It’s all part of the set-up: Raphael O'Byrne’s symmetrical cinematography, Le Poeme Harmonique’s rearrangement of classical compositions  and the involvement of social realist filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne as producers priming audiences for a certain sort of film. Even Green himself comes with a certain amount of baggage, with numerous reviews feeling the need to declare this his most accessible work yet . Certainly, nobody going into The Son of Joseph is going to have their expectations met. There’s even room for a satirical subplot at the expense of critics, starring Maria de Medeiros as Violette, though even it serves to subvert perceived wisdom by suggesting that authors don’t create, they are created.
So what is a father, according to The Son of Joseph? It seems a paternity test isn’t necessary, for Green inevitably concludes that it is entirely up to Vincent to decide. In speaking of his admiration for Caravaggio’s work the director observes: “The hidden God is always present in his painting, represented by light that comes from a hidden source. For me, that is the basis of Baroque art.” Green has been telling us all along that in this instance, the Father is the son.