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The Unknown Girl and The Son of Joseph: Two Recent Films (on Netflix) with a Moral Core

Walter Moss: The Dardenne brothers' films reflect the modern conflict between our "ego-driven drive to succeed in our capitalist world" and "the better angels of our nature."
unknown girl

The Unknown Girl

In 2015, on this site, I wrote an essay praising the films of the Belgian directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. What the two French-language works mentioned in the present essay’s title have in common is that the first was the latest work directed by the brothers, and the second was co-produced by them and reflects a similar ethical sensibility to that of The Unknown Girl (2016) and earlier Dardenne films.

In my earlier essay I stated that the brothers’ films reflect the modern conflict between our “ego-driven drive to succeed in our capitalist world” and “the better angels of our nature.” And that “these movies also awaken our empathy for those struggling to achieve meaningful lives.” In addition, many of the movies are “set in and around Belgian industrial cities like Seraing and Liège” and “deal with Belgium’s less fortunate, those most vulnerable in capitalist society,” including immigrants. The Unknown Girl, which also occurs in these two cities (mainly Seraing), revolves around the death of a young African immigrant and the effect it has on the film’s chief character, the young Doctor Jenny Davin.

Because the young African died shortly after she rang the doorbell (only once) to the doctor’s clinic and Jenny did not answer—it was after hours—she feels guilty, and many of her subsequent actions follow from her desire to atone for her guilt. Rather than taking a more prestigious, and no doubt better-paying, job at an upscale center with other physicians, she decides to continue working long hours, including house calls, serving people, including some immigrants, in a poorer neighborhood. At the end of the film, Jenny is working (apparently without any staff help) tending to various patients including an old lady, whom she helps down some steps. She also works hard to convince a young intern that he should not give up his quest to finish his medical training.

As in many other Dardenne films, the main character’s struggle to become a better, more caring, person occurs within a realistic, well-acted, interesting and dramatic story, which also displays empathy for the down-and-outs of society.

The Son of Joseph

The Son of Joseph

Compared to The Unknown Girl, The Son of Joseph (2016), directed by Eugène Green, is more overt in its religious references, as Green recognizes. But he insists that he and the Dardenne brothers share a strong concern with spiritual questions.

His overtness is clearly indicated by the division of his film into five parts: The Sacrifice of Abraham, The Golden Calf, The Sacrifice of Isaac, The Carpenter, and The Flight to Egypt. In the room of the main character, the teenaged Vincent, hangs a large reproduction of Caravaggio’s painting “The Sacrifice of Isaac.” This depiction of the Biblical story of Abraham preparing to slay Isaac, his son, as ordered by God, is central to the film—the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard also analyzed this Biblical passage extensively in his Fear and Trembling. In a conversation between Vincent and his older friend Joseph, the boy asks him if he thinks Abraham was right in preparing to sacrifice Isaac, and Joseph says “no,” the voice Abraham heard was not God’s, but his own prideful voice. Vincent then asks Joseph whose voice was that of the angel who at the last minute stopped Abraham from cutting his son’s throat (also depicted in the painting). Joseph says, “That was the voice of God.” Vincent then tells his friend that he is a good man and asks him what one can do to be good. Joseph replies that one should listen to the voice of God, who is within us and tells us to love.

Although the summary of this conversation might suggest that the film is too didactic, it does not come across that way. This and other such “moral” dialogues are brief, and this one occurs in the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens of Paris between two believable characters.

The Abraham-Isaac story also comes to mind in another scene earlier in the film. On that occasion, however, the knife wielder and likely victim are reversed. It is now the son, Vincent, wielding the knife, with the potential victim being his handcuffed father, Oscar, who lies before him on the floor. But, as in the Biblical story, at the last moment the knife wielder changes his mind—perhaps also hearing a godly voice within himself.

Oscar is the most odious person in Green’s film. After impregnating Vincent’s mother, Marie, Oscar told her to abort the fetus (who would become Vincent) or he would leave her, which he did. Oscar is a wealthy publisher, and his identity as the boy’s father and his behavior toward Marie had only recently become known to the teenager. In part II of the film, “The Golden Calf,” the phoniness and pretentiousness of Oscar and his minions is satirized to great effect at an award party for one of Oscar’s writers, an event that Vincent bluffs his way into. Like the idol worshipers in the biblical passage of the golden calf, Green suggests that Oscar and his circle have turned away from God in order to worship false gods—fame, money, etc

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Oscar’s moral shallowness is also depicted by encounters in his hotel suite with his wife and brother (Vincent’s friend Joseph). His conversation with his wife (which Vincent, hidden under a sofa, hears) depicts him as indifferent to their three children. His encounter with his brother, who asks him for a loan to buy a farm in Normandy, also reveals Oscar’s selfish, uncaring nature. But again the director’s moral message is not overdone but flows naturally from Oscar’s character.

At the opposite end of the moral spectrum is Vincent’s mother, Marie. She is a nurse devoted to her son and her patients. When Vincent expresses doubts about the wisdom of her being a nurse, she states, "I help people who are suffering. I try to give them strength. . . . You'll help people in other ways.” Later on, in a conversation with her boy’s friend Joseph (neither she nor Vincent yet realize that he is Oscar’s brother), she mentions the “beautiful moments” her profession provides her. Although we might wonder how believable it is that such a nice woman could have ever been attracted to such a heel as Oscar, we know from experience that such circumstances sometimes occur.

Joseph is also a good person, as Vincent tells him in their Luxembourg Garden conversation. He first befriends Vincent when he realizes the boy might be in trouble. He does not know why the boy is fleeing—Vincent had just almost killed his dad—but Joseph also had a troubled childhood and empathizes with the boy. Subsequently they meet on several occasions.

Besides coming together at the Luxembourg Gardens, they also visit the Louvre and hear performances inside a church. Two pictures that they observe at the art museum are especially significant, one is of the body of Christ after his crucifixion and the other is of Jesus and his earthly father, Joseph. In the church, they hear a recitation of a seventeenth-century poem on the death of an author’s son (about the same age as Vincent) and a song by a mother lamenting the death of her son, Euryalus, dying in battle on foreign shores “preyed upon by dogs and vultures” which is adapted from Virgil’s Aeneid.

The last part of the film, “The Flight to Egypt,” parallels the Nativity story of Joseph and Mary going from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where the pregnant Mary gives birth to Jesus. As tradition and an apocryphal gospel have it, Mary rides on a donkey. In Green’s film, however, Vincent, Joseph, and Marie (French for Mary) drive to Normandy and then walk to the seacoast until Marie rides on a donkey because her feet hurt.

Once at the coast a final dramatic confrontation occurs between the threesome and Oscar, accompanied by the police he has summoned. When the police ask how Marie and Joseph are related to Vincent, Marie says she is his mother and Joseph says he is his father.

In summarizing the entire film, we see that it is an extended examination of parenthood and moral responsibility, with many parallels to the story of Abraham and Isaac and of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. It is also a reflection on how one should live in the modern world.

Like the mother of Jesus, Vincent’s mother cares for others and tries to bring her son up to be a caring and good person. Like Mary’s spouse, the Joseph of Green’s film, although not the biological father, becomes a father figure to the boy. And under the guidance of Marie and Joseph, Vincent becomes a better person.

Green also comments on other aspects of life by depicting the moral irresponsibility of Oscar and his Parisian circle, modern-day worshipers of false idols such as fame and money. In contrast, Joseph and Marie prefer nature and the countryside. In the city, Joseph likes to walk in parks like the Luxembourg Gardens, visit art museums like the Louvre, and take in artistic performances, as he and Vincent did in a church.

If all of this sounds like an edifying, but not enjoyable, movie that would be a wrong impression. Edifying yes, but anything but dull. The pace of it is quick with plenty of drama, the acting first-rate, the visuals (including the Luxembourg Gardens, the Normandy seacoast, and many of the Parisian urban views) enjoyable, and the humor more than sufficient.

A few examples of humor. The whole second part, “The Golden Calf,” is full of delicious satire, especially of a pretentious female literary critic and lover of Oscar’s. Later she tells him she has talked to an author whom we know has been dead for over a decade, and when Oscar informs her of such but then says he’ll introduce her to the famous novelist Marcel Proust, who has been dead almost a century, she responds, I’ll interview him.” Vincent is fond of jokes that begin, “What do you call . . . ?” In one of them he asks Joseph, “What do you call a revolutionary nudist?” His answer: “A sans-culotte!” The term literally means “without breeches,” but was also applied to lower class revolutionaries who wore long pants instead of the culottes more fashionable among the upper classes.

Because of its humor and its visual and artistic delights, The Son of Joseph has a lighter quality than The Unknown Girl. Both French-language films, however, feature a medical woman who cares for her patients and others. And both have plenty of drama, but highlight the importance of compassion, empathy, and love. Finally, both affirm the possibility of living good, caring lives amidst all the “false idols” of the twenty-first century.

walter moss

Walter Moss