‘Pretentious’ is a very dangerous word to use in criticism, if only because its true meaning has been systematically diluted. A general audience tends to use the word to describe any work of art they don’t understand, but the true definition implies a sort of flashiness: ‘Look at me!’ a film will say. ‘I’m important! Look at all these high-brow references!’ Eugène Green’s The Son of Joseph, which enjoyed a theatrical release earlier this year and has since been interred in Netflix’s vast wasteland, is pretentious, but only in fits and starts. Half the time, its literary allusions and pompous style work; the rest of the time, it makes you want to bash your head against a wall.
Green’s film starts in the latter mode. We meet Vincent, a French teenager living with his single mother. He has never met his father, and prodding his mum for information about the man results in swift rebukes. Vincent doesn’t seem to have much of a life. The only friend we see him interact with tries to get him to donate sperm to his, er, rather peculiar entrepreneurial mail-order service.
These characters talk in an overripe, presentational style, like a 19th century play. They’re liable to say exactly what’s on their minds, and bluntly announce their actions in advance of performing them. Peppered throughout this brusque exposition are thuddingly obvious religious symbols. For example, Vincent has a large print of Caravaggio’s The Sacrifice of Isaac on his bedroom wall. You know, like teenagers do. The film is even divided into chapters Tarantino-style, with each chapter title referencing a biblical subject or event. These titles are likely as not to be red herrings.
This palpable phoniness makes The Son of Joseph enormously difficult to get into, and I spent most of the first half-hour wondering if I should abandon the film for something less headache-inducing. Eventually, a plot coalesces to take the sting off. Vincent finds a letter his mother wrote to his absent father, which was Returned To Sender. He uses this to track down the man who abandoned his mother all those years ago, and discovers Oscar, a publisher.
Oscar is an asshole—an egotistic twat who still wants nothing to do with Vincent. He’s also abandoned other members of his family, including his brother Joseph (!), with whom Vincent strikes a friendship. Green’s film works best in these passages, when poking fun at the pomposity and self-importance that permeates the world of art and publishing. His style highlights the empty accolades and backhanded flattery of Oscar’s coterie. But this critique of artists is nothing new, and Green doesn’t seem to add much that hasn’t been said before.
The film’s greatest asset may be Victor Ezenfis as Vincent. Ezenfis is one of those young, mop-haired Frenchmen capable of suggesting high sophistication and vulnerability at the same time (cf. Louis Garrel). He’s also the only actor in the production capable of delivering Green’s dialogue without ever seeming aware of how absurd it is. When Vincent speaks, you believe, more or less, that this is the mode of speech in his universe. At some point or another, every other character seems aware of the affectation, which negates its use.
Ultimately, The Son of Joseph’s style derails, rather than supports, Green’s anaemic thematic content. His film trudges on long after he’s made his point, simply to wrap up a narrative whose destination is obvious at least half an hour before it arrives. But even though it doesn’t work, it may provide some instructional value as an example of a film whose style, theme, and plot all clash with each other—without quite being disastrous.