Director: Jessica Hausner
Stars: Emily Beecham, Ben Wishaw, Kit Connor
In both Don Siegel and Philip Kaufman’s famous iterations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the titular floral menace crashes to Earth from outer space. It is an interloper from elsewhere and so, in a real sense, an agent of chaos out of our control. Acclaimed Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner and her co-writer Géraldine Bajard take a more wryly misanthropic approach with their own modern spin on the idea. In Little Joe it is an act of human hubris that is responsible. We are the agents of our own potential downfall…
Emily Beecham is Alice; a geneticist engineering a plant designed to increase the happiness of its owners. Naming her creation ‘Little Joe’ – after her own biological son – the pretty flower is designed with commercial motives. It cannot reproduce. Though the intention is benign, Alice’s revolutionary new plant life might be more sinister than she realises, as its pollen starts creating subtle changes of behaviour in her co-workers and family members alike…
With coronavirus consuming the media and growing into an epidemic of global proportions, the theme of infection that runs through Hausner’s film couldn’t be more apt for 2020’s spike in paranoia, but there’s a lot more to this little film than the fear-mongering of communicable catastrophe. This is a quietly funny and altogether more thoughtful piece of work, one that infiltrates all manner of different nooks and crannies.
The commercial desirability of happiness, for one thing. Alice’s ‘Little Joes’ are designed as a living antidote to negative emotions, as though the agricultural market might make rivals of the pharmaceutical companies. Little Joe, by extension, almost acts as a critique of our growing anxiety over feeling good. There’s a marked cultural pressure on being ‘okay’. The authenticity of emotion is repeatedly called into question as more and more people around Alice are exposed to her plants. Their happiness isn’t exactly happiness but a synthesised version of the same. It’s a reflection on the growing dependency on prescription anti-depressants in western society, and the question of whether the feelings they produce are truly comparable to healthy stability.
It’s telling that Alice is already in therapy when the film begins. Clearly she has the self-awareness to realise she is, to some extent, depressed. Might that also serve as a motivator for her ‘creative’ work? Speaking of work, Planthouse laboratories is an eerily anemic space where Alice is awkwardly pressured into a relationship by co-worker Chris (Ben Wishaw). Another of the scientists, Bella (Kerry Fox), is routinely stigmatised for her own history of mental illness. Little Joe can also be viewed as a hothouse of office politics; prying into the sometimes unhealthy ways that bad behaviours are normalised for the sake of not ‘rocking the boat’. It’s another reflection of the negative connotations of a hive-mind mentality.
There are familial concerns, too. Alice’s son Joe (Kit Connor) is an adolescent. The counter-argument to Alice’s sci-fi suspicions is the idea that this is all just a metaphor for the changes brought on by pubescence, and a mother’s fears of becoming estranged from her own son. That Little Joe might all be in service of this pop-psychology allegory. It’s too smart for that (no surprise from Hausner), and the subtext rapidly becomes text during Alice’s therapy sessions. Little Joe openly addresses its most obvious reading. It almost breaks the fourth wall in this regard.
The theme of infiltration is woven craftily into the visual language of the film. The colour red pops somewhere in virtually every frame of the movie, coming to feel like a persistent interloper. Be it Alice’s flowers, Joe’s trainers, a kick-stool, the lab’s chairs and gloves, a glace cherry or even Alice’s own mop of red hair, Hausner ensures that the colour always feels like an invading force in the frame. Elsewhere, on two occasions, Hausner pushes conversing characters out of frame, accentuating the negative space between them. Her camera – and by extension us, her viewers – come to feel like intruders in these scenes. We’re between the actors.
This is Hausner’s first English-language feature, and there’s a notable uptick in humour throughout (including a timely potshot at Brexit). Still, her fondness for stilted, awkward social interactions fits the overall mood of the piece perfectly, and newcomers will likely find it reminiscent of works by the likes of Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) or even Ildiko Enyedi (On Body And Soul). Her flowers are rendered beautifully through a mixture of physical and digital effects work, while the urge to feel stifled by the manufactured aesthetics is countered by a soundtrack that feels very earthy. Hausner pocks her silences with pieces that favour flutes and woodblocks, adding an Asian influence to the piece.
It’s almost a horror film – it certainly has the pessimism of Cronenberg – but Hausner seems to deliberately keep us on the peripheries of a number of genres. It contains one of the most effective jump scares I’ve been cornered by, but the infrequent violence is deliberately just off-screen. This sense of cunning is redolent of a film that doesn’t want to be pigeonholed, and is – as intimated above – a number of different things, all at once. A chimera, if you will.