Finding faith

Eugène Green on fathers, donkeys and Son Of Joseph.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Eugène Green with Kleber Mendonça Filho's Aquarius star Sônia Braga
Eugène Green with Kleber Mendonça Filho's Aquarius star Sônia Braga Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, who have their film The Unknown Girl (La Fille Inconnue) screening in this year's New York Film Festival and are the co-producers for Cristian Mungiu's Graduation (Bacalaureat), also co-produced Eugène Green's Son Of Joseph (Le Fils De Joseph) starring Victor Ezenfis, Natacha Régnier, Fabrizio Rongione, Maria de Medeiros and Mathieu Amalric.

Vincent (Victor Ezenfis) Marie (Natacha Regnier) Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione):
Vincent (Victor Ezenfis) Marie (Natacha Regnier) Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione): "I like Balthazar very much, but since my childhood I've always liked donkeys."

Following my conversation with Sônia Braga on her Oscar worthy performance in Kleber Mendonça Filho's Aquarius, we ran into Eugène Green whom I was meeting to discuss his film up at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. He spoke with me about Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert with Monica Vitti, Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, running into Nathalie Sarraute (as in Picasso in Sam Shepard's True West), Marie et Joseph in the audience and why the birds don't die.

Faith isn't always found in church. You can encounter it on the road, riding a donkey. Eugène Green's cheerily divine narrative, figuratively sinister storm clouds aside, centres around Vincent (Victor Ezenfis) a Paris teenager in search of his father. He has none, according to his mother Marie (Natacha Régnier). If this sounds vaguely, biblically familiar, it is because it is. In his room on the wall, Vincent has a print of The Sacrifice Of Isaac by Caravaggio, in his heart he has the desire to to find out who made him. Green in his unique directorial style lets people say out loud what regular mortals only dare to think. The camera is neutral confessional.

Eugène Green on Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert:
Eugène Green on Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert: "I saw that film when I was 16 and while I was watching that film I decided that I wanted to make films." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Vincent, understandably sick of his rat-torturing friends and a pal obsessed with making sperm bank money, finds out that his biological father has to be Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric), the famous publisher and society figure. "Details bore me," he says when asked how many children he has. Maria de Medeiros steals the show at a publishing party from hell as literary critic Violette. At the party Vincent not only sees his shallow father face to face but is already fêted as the next big thing, "the next Céline," without having to write a single word.

Only when a man named Joseph (Fabrizio Rongione), Oscar's brother, enters the picture, can a son become a son and make a father out of a man. Vincent likes to wear his shirt collars up and his red scarf wrapped around his neck as though he just stepped down from a painting. Agnès Noden, who is also the costumer for Volker Schlöndorff's upcoming Return To Montauk, executes Green's composition of mirroring clothes to fine effect.

The Louvre, the ocean, a room in the countryside filled with old childhood toys that haven't attracted a fleck of dust, the intricate pattern of the springs underneath an antique divan - the spaces on Green's screen oblige to hook ourselves into them in order to explore. To explore what we know and what the opposite of that might look like.

Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric) Violette (Maria de Medeiros) at the book party
Oscar Pormenor (Mathieu Amalric) Violette (Maria de Medeiros) at the book party

Anne-Katrin Titze: "His son made it possible for him to be a father" is at the centre of your film for me. It isn't biology, it isn't what is given to you but what you search for and long for? Is that at the core of your film?

Eugène Green: Yes. The relationship between people is not necessarily based on blood relationships. It's this sort of ideal filial relation.

AKT: The name Pormenor, for Oscar Pormenor, means "detail". At the same time, when you pronounce it the American way, it almost sounds like pure manure.

EG: I didn't think of that. I thought of it in Portuguese, it's pormenor and that's why I gave him that name.

AKT: Because he turns out to be just a detail [in his son's life]?

Marie (Natacha Régnier) in front of The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio
Marie (Natacha Régnier) in front of The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio

EG: No, it's not that he turns out to be a detail but he thinks that everything that's important is a detail. His children, the child he abandoned, etc.

AKT: Violette is a wonderful character who gets away with lines such as "I just spoke with Nathalie Sarraute." No matter if she is dead. The dialogue in these publishing party scenes is the closest to what you would actually hear. Whereas many of your characters speak what you don't hear, what is internal. The book party scenes are quite close to reality.

EG: They are satirical scenes. They are real, yes, but they are enlarged somewhat, as you always do in satire. They say things actually which have no basis. They don't rest on anything. They don't have any grounding, whereas the serious characters what they say are important things which come from within.

Concierge at Hotel Clovis (Eugène Green) with Vincent
Concierge at Hotel Clovis (Eugène Green) with Vincent

AKT: The donkey, is he a relative of Balthazar?

EG: No, people always think that. I like Balthazar very much, but since my childhood I've always liked donkeys.

AKT: You almost lost me after the first scene, the scene with the rat. I didn't know what to expect for the rest of the film, it was that strong. I'm sure you knew what you were doing.

EG: I hope so.

AKT: It is the most frightening scene of the film. Do you want to say anything about the rat scene?

EG: No.

AKT: I see how tired you are and I've had a few interviews as well today, so I'll let you go.

Vincent with his mother Marie
Vincent with his mother Marie

EG: I think you have your own point of view, so you can write it more as a critical analysis of the film, which would be interesting. More than what I have to say.

AKT: I understand. And I now feel the pressure to come up with something that nobody asked you in a whole day. Let's try one more. Why are they going to see Red Desert?

EG: Because it has a personal meaning for me. I saw that film when I was 16 and while I was watching that film I decided that I wanted to make films. But that's not the main reason why I put it in. I put it in because, normally, if I had been able to film this script as I wrote it, you would have heard the last scene of the film, just from the screening.

You would have seen Marie et Joseph in the audience. Because in the last scene, the character - I don't remember what her name is, but the character played by Monica Vitti [Giuliana] - she is with her little boy and they look at the yellow smoke coming out of the smokestack. And they see a bird and she tells her son that the smoke is poisonous.

Volker Schlöndorff's Return to Montauk costumer Agnès Noden also worked on Son Of Joseph
Volker Schlöndorff's Return to Montauk costumer Agnès Noden also worked on Son Of Joseph Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

And he asks why the birds don't die from the poison and she says, they learned to live with it. And that's something … it gives hope even in a world where everything is poisonous. You have to look for hope in a way of living with it and keeping it. And that's one of the themes of my film.

AKT: Mathieu Amalric is brilliant in it, because he is menacing, he is absent-minded, he is absurd, and he stabs right to the heart at once.

EG: He is not very moving except in the last frame, yes. No, he is a very great actor. I was happy to work with him.

Son Of Joseph will screen at the BFI London Film Festival on October 13 at 6:15pm and October 14 at 3:15pm.

The 54th New York Film Festival runs through October 16.

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