Austrian director Jessica Hausner has been a favorite of the Cannes Film Festival ever since her 45 minute short Inter-View won a Special Mention in 1999. Since then her subsequent feature films, Lovely Rita (2001), Hotel (2004) and Amour fou (2014) have all been nominated for Cannes’ Un Certain Regard Award. And her new feature Little Joe was nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or award and won the Best Actress award for Emily Beecham. It is also worth noting that all of Hausner’s previous features with the exception of Lourdes (a French language production) have been in German. Little Joe, not to be confused with the 2008 documentary about Warhol star Joe Dallesandro also entitled Little Joe, marks Hausner’s English language debut and it is a remarkably self-assured and hypnotic work that displays none of the usual drawbacks that detract from a director’s first foray into a non-native language production.
Like most of Hausner’s previous films, Little Joe features an idiosyncratic female protagonist. Alice (Beecham) is a highly respected botanist whose work at a plant research facility has produced a stunning hybrid. The flowering species which she calls “Little Joe” after her son Joe (Kit Connor) emits a scent that makes people happy. All it requires in return is water and attending to its needs which includes touching and talking to it.
What starts out as an ominous and chilling variation on The Little Shop of Horrors slowly plays out as a more cerebral consideration of the sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers and then veers off into a paranoid psychological drama about a woman’s loss of control over her own life.
Alice, a divorced working mother, is supremely self-confident at her work place and seems too preoccupied with her research to care about a social life or even romance despite overtures from her colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw). At home with her son, however, there are obvious cracks in her armor. Alice feels guilty about their limited time together and even wonders during a session with her therapist (Lindsey Duncan) if her long hours at the lab were an ulterior motive for driving her husband away.
Alice’s fears began to grow alarmingly as co-workers and even her own son begin to act differently after being exposed to pollen released by her laboratory-raised plants. Bella (Kerry Fox), a co-worker who previously suffered mental health issues, becomes convinced that her dog is no longer the same pet after spending time in the greenhouse with the plants. Instead of achieving a blissful or happy state, those exposed to “Little Joe” become strangers to those who knew them while maintaining that they have never felt more like themselves.
Anyone expecting a traditional sci-fi or horror film will probably be disappointed in Little Joe since it clearly has no interest in following genre formulas after establishing its unsettling premise. In fact, Hausner’s film defies easy classification since it is more interested in maintaining a sense of dread instead of serving up a body count or apocalyptic mayhew. The director even injects unexpected humor during crucial dramatic moments to throw you off balance such as the scene where Joe and his girlfriend Selma admit to Alice that they have been infected by the plant.
Joe: All of us who have inhaled the pollen belong together now and will do anything to help Little Joe…If you inhale the pollen too, you’ll understand. It makes you feel happy. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?
Selma: It’s like being dead. You don’t notice you’re dead, do you?
When Alice looks shocked at their remarks, they both explode with laughter, saying, “It’s a joke. You don’t really believe that nonsense, do you?”
In the end, Little Joe refuses to go where you may expect or want it to go but it also refrains from giving the viewer a sense of satisfying closure at the film’s fadeout. Is that a bad thing? That depends on if you like your endings neat and tidy or ambiguous and open-ended.
Some might see Little Joe as a cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific experimentation or an allegory about the long-term effects of a self-medicating society or maybe even a black comedy about the work place and the price of ambition. All of those are valid interpretations.
The beauty of Little Joe is that it is creates its own universe, where fantasy and reality bleed together in a dream state, seducing the viewer with its color-coordinated art direction and visual design. The hybrid plants are particularly mesmerizing. When first seen they sport beautiful turquoise blooms with purple centers but a later variety displays glowing red flowers with filament that clearly responses to mammals. These special effects are subtle but effectively creepy.
The music score also provides the film with rare moments of dramatic intensity and shock effects. It seems partially inspired by the type of orchestration prevalent in kabuki theater presentations – ceremonial drum beats, shrill, piercing woodwinds and an occasional flute or oboe solo, which has a haunting effect.
Of course Little Joe wouldn’t work as well without the excellent acting ensemble that Hausner has assembled (Many of the actors are from the U.K.). Emily Beecham (Hail, Caesar!, 28 Weeks Later) deserves her Cannes Best Actress award for a challenging role that requires her to transition from a formidable botany expert to a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Ben Whishaw is particularly well cast for his geeky fanboy intelligence (Q in the James Bond films, Skyfall and Spectre) and deceitfulness (the 2015 BBC series, London Spy) and Kerry Fox (Bright Star, An Angel at My Table) hits all the right notes as a troubled, irksome colleague.
Little Joe isn’t likely to reach audiences beyond the small art house circuit but it is promising that the film is even being distributed in the U.S. If it does manage to attract any attention during Oscar awards season, that might help stimulate interest in Hausner’s earlier work and result in opportunities for film lovers to see acclaimed titles like Lourdes and Hotel. On the basis of Little Joe alone, Hausner is a clearly remarkable visual stylist and provocateur who deserves wider exposure.
Little Joe is currently in release at selected theaters across the U.S.
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