More than a few critics have suggested that Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe plays as if Invasion of the Body Snatchers were crossbred with Little Shop of Horrors—and then bled dry of every generic thrill either of those sci-fi romps offers. “In genre films, you obey the rules,” Hausner tells Damon Wise at Deadline. “But with Little Joe, we don’t obey the rules.”
Hausner, whose Lovely Rita (2001), Hotel (2004), and Amour fou (2014) have all premiered in Cannes’s Un Certain Regard program, is in competition for the first time with the story of Alice (Emily Beecham), the divorced mother of a teenaged son she sees too little of, Joe (Kit Connor). With her lab partner Chris (Ben Whishaw), she’s developing a new species of plant for a British conglomerate, a crimson flower whose smell induces a pleasurable sense of contentment. An older colleague, Bella (Kerry Fox), warns that the beauty Alice has dubbed “Little Joe” is also reprogramming the minds it infects in order to ensure its own species’ survival and propagation. “Whether or not a pollen-based virus is slowly taking over this corner of the United Kingdom is one worry,” writes Daniel Kasman in the Notebook, and another is “whether engineered happiness can or should replace genuine sadness. The first fear is fit for a horror film, the second for a withering assessment of the direction of our technocratic culture.”
Geoff Andrew, dispatching to Sight & Sound, finds that Hausner’s screenplay, cowritten with Géraldine Bajard, “shows an astute grasp of the psychological and social dynamics of the family, the workplace, of parenthood and of gender relations. Thanks to the inclusion of a psychotherapist Alice visits (Lindsay Duncan), certain issues to do with guilt and suppressed desire are made explicit, but not in a clunky or over-emphatic fashion; possibilities of interpretation are simply sown into the overall narrative, which is balanced precariously but pleasingly between the fantastic and the real, between the analytical and the evocative, between the seriously philosophical and the darkly comic.”
IndieWire’s David Ehrlich argues that Little Joe “can be seen as a direct attack on anyone who’s ever appreciated the benefits of a mood-enhancing pharmaceutical” and that “the movie isn’t the least bit subtle in its suggestion that people on Prozac are addicted to their own well-being, and that their dependency siphons away at the full spectrum of who they are.” Taking that argument into serious consideration, the Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang suggests that, yes, the film “can be read as an indictment of a society intent on numbing its emotions and medicating itself into submission. Or can it? The strange, satirically inflected everything-is-fine vibe of Little Joe creates its own beguiling sensations and, to these entranced eyes, eventually slips the constraints of metaphor.”
At the A.V. Club, A. A. Dowd finds Little Joe “creepy for how mundanely uncreepy it plays its scenario.” And “maybe it’s actually about the cerebral ‘infection’ of parenthood, the way having a child totally rewires your priorities. It’s tough to say: Metaphorically, this isn’t a film that’s simple to categorize. Visually, it’s a total feast for the eyes, contrasting art-deco pinks and mint greens against sterile, symmetrically framed expanses of white, vaguely evoking the aesthetic of some lost sci-fi film of the ’70s.”
But again, without the thrills. As Tim Robey points out in the Telegraph, “Hausner is a very theoretical, less-is-more director, never likely to push this curio of a conceit to the wild extremes of a Yorgos Lanthimos, still less a David Cronenberg. And while the greenhouse in which half the film is set has to be kept almost tropically warm to keep the flowers growing, the film itself never exudes much heat: it’s a chilly, impeccable diagram.” This is, as Hausner explains to Damon Wise, by design. Beginning in the very early stages of a project’s development, she works closely with her regular cinematographer, Martin Gschlacht, with her sister, Tanja Hausner, on costumes, and with set designer Katharina Wöppermann to create an aesthetic that never allows an audience to forget that it’s watching a film. “I like artificial settings, colors, costumes, and obvious camera movements,” she tells Variety’s Stewart Clarke. “Some like it; others hate it.”
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