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Filmmaker Eugène Green on making a place for religion in the modern world

Eugène Green at the 32th Turin Film Festival in 2014 (Photo: Alessandro Albert/Getty Images)
Eugène Green at the 32th Turin Film Festival in 2014 (Photo: Alessandro Albert/Getty Images)

One of the great eccentrics of contemporary film, Eugène Green only began making movies in his mid-50s, after a career as an educator and specialist in baroque theater. Since releasing his debut, Toutes Les Nuits (2001), the writer-director has gone on to create a distinct and unusual body of work, influenced by baroque and medieval forms, fascinated by the power of language, and marked by a droll formalist sensibility and humor that brings to mind Robert Bresson. Green’s latest, The Son Of Joseph, is arguably his most accessible film to date, an offbeat modern-day fable that riffs on Christian imagery and modern life through the story of a sullen French teenager (Victor Ezenfis) who goes in search of his supposed biological father, an insensitive and philandering book publisher (Mathieu Amalric).

An American expat who has been a naturalized French citizen since the 1970s, Green now speaks English with a halting accent and an unplaceable cadence—a fact that is echoed toward the end of this interview. Green spoke to The A.V. Club last fall while The Son Of Joseph was playing at the New York Film Festival.

The A.V. Club: In your last film, La Sapienza, you introduced a paternal theme. It’s front and center in The Son Of Joseph.

Eugène Green: Yes, it’s only in these last two films. It’s a question of transmission, because one of the biggest problems of our contemporary civilization is that there’s been an interruption of transmission. People have no past in their present. When you see people on the street, they’re living in their phones. They aren’t living where they are—they haven’t got the energy of the past. And so it’s something that needs to be reestablished. It used to be parents that transmitted things to their children or teachers in school. But [I] think that it can take other forms also. That’s one of the themes in The Son Of Joseph, the idea that the father is not necessarily the biological father—the father is the one who transmits love to someone that is young. And it goes in both directions. Mature people transmit to young people a certain wisdom that comes from maturity, but young people are close to a more intuitive wisdom, and they can give that back to older people who have lost it to their maturation.

AVC: But besides that metaphorical aspect, parenting is an old theme.

EG: Well, it’s one of the bases of all human existence—the relation between parents and children, whether biologically or metaphorically. It’s something we can never get away from, even in a civilization where we’re controlled by robots. It’s the basic relationship between mature people who represent paternal and maternal figures and young people. It’s universal—it’s part of human existence. It’s always been that way, and it will always be that way if humans remain around.

AVC: I know you’re interested in cathedrals and architecture in general. I’m thinking of something Henri Focillon wrote about medieval cathedrals. He called them “encyclopedias of stone,” because of all the information they contained.

EG: The problem now is that there’s too much information, and there’s no hierarchy. Like on the internet, for example. The information that was contained in a cathedral was based upon a common culture—a common Christian culture—and the elements were chosen for a common symbolic meaning. Someone who knew everything that was represented in a cathedral had a sort of encyclopedia—you can indeed call it that—but it was a selective encyclopedia, like encyclopedias back when they were books and the people writing them were supposed to be specialists in their field. I think today the problem is that people don’t know how to choose between different kinds of information.

The Son Of Joseph (Photo: Kino Lorber)

AVC: Is there a solution?

EG: I think it’s going to get worse in the common development of things, but I think it’s necessary to resist. I think artists can play a role in that resistance—by choosing to simplify things, actually, to get back to what is most essential and most important in human existence. That’s what I try to do, in a very modest way.

AVC: What do you think is most essential?

EG: [Long pause.] The relation between our world and the natural world, the individual and the other individuals around them, between man and what is sacred. But I think that if you have a sense of the sacredness of nature and of human relations, I think you will be uplifted in some sort of spiritual elevation.

AVC: Are you religious?

EG: Religious? Not in the sense of following dogmas or anything, but I think I have a spiritual quest. Spiritual truth is something that is so far from us—without any form or name that we can imagine—that we need the things that religions gave us simply as images and metaphors. But they can be found in a variety of ways. It’s not a question of religious practice.

AVC: You’re drawing on religious imagery in this film. Now, if we’re talking about the development of European art, so much of it happened through a direct relationship with religion. But not so much now. Is it important to go back to that?

EG: In France, we have laïcité, which means that atheism is almost our state religion. But I think a very important part of Western culture is in the centuries when Christianism was dominant and was present in almost all works of art—not only liturgical works, but also literature and music. Yes, it’s important to have that in our present. It doesn’t mean that people have to adhere to a dogma or practice a religion, but it’s part of our heritage, and you have to at least try to understand it. Otherwise you can’t be a modern person.

AVC: The baroque period is one of your passions. You’ve spoken about it before as a crisis that Western civilization never got over.

EG: Baroque civilization believed in two truths, which for a post-18th-century mindset are exclusive truths—we have to eliminate one to believe the other. They believed in the rational exploration of the universe, and they also believed that there was a hidden spiritual truth. Baroque [thinkers] were able to live the two at the same time. In any case, for me, it’s necessary to live that way also.

AVC: When people use the word “baroque” to describe a film, they’re referring to a decorative sensibility, something that is very ornate. Your films are minimalist.

EG: I work very hard to achieve simplicity, which is never natural, never spontaneous. It’s always obtained at the price of a great effort. The idea that “baroque” means “ornamented,” that comes from the 18th century, actually. Voltaire was the first to use the word “baroque” in French, and for him it was a pejorative. It was something that didn’t correspond to the aesthetics of the 18th century. But when people talk about the baroque being ornamented, they’re thinking about Jesuit art. But Jesuit art was a small part of baroque civilization. Someone like [Francesco] Borromini, whose work you see in La Sapienza, is not ornamented—his work was based on movement and tension. It’s very purified. I never use “baroque” except in speaking about the 17th century or the end of the 16th century. For me, it’s like “Renaissance,” a historical term. But that’s just my opinion.

The Son Of Joseph (Photo: Kino Lorber)

AVC: You mention simplicity being hard work. In a film, you’re working with so many people. How do you get actors and crew members to that state?

EG: It’s by entente. I don’t know how you translate it. It’s like an agreement…

AVC: It’s the same word in English, like an understanding.

EG: That’s it. I have much respect for the people that I work with, and it’s reciprocal. My shoots are always very calm. Everyone has their work to do, and we try to respect everyone’s work and give them the time necessary. There’s never any tension. That’s something [that] helps to attain the simplicity that I’m looking for.

AVC: Do you take short days? Long days? Do you like to take your time when you’re filming?

EG: I don’t like things to be overcharged, because otherwise everyone starts getting nervous. I try to be very well organized. When I write the script, everything is already in there, like the decoupage. How do you translate that?

AVC: Well, it’s decoupage in English, too, but only critics use it that way. [In film theory, ”decoupage” refers to the way a scene is broken down into individual angles. —ed.]

EG: [Laughs.] So, the decoupage is in the script. I always work with the same cinematographer, Raphaël O’Byrne, and he knows, simply by reading the description, exactly what I want. Often we finish ahead of the schedule for the day.

AVC: The performances in your films aren’t representational or realistic in the way they are in most films. There’s a level of artifice. Who is your ideal viewer, coming into a movie theater to see your film?

EG: From a viewer, all I ask is to be open and let themselves go. A viewer who’s never seen any of my films will most likely be surprised at the beginning, but if they don’t close in—it’s a coherent language, and it’s meant to produce emotions. When you speak a foreign language, you become someone else. If you aren’t used to speaking a language, and you start speaking it again, for the first few sentences you’ll find yourself in very strange shape, because you’re still the person who was speaking the first language. But if you keep speaking that language, you will become the person who corresponds to it. I think it’s the same thing for my films.