“Who can prove the genuineness of our feelings?” a character asks at one point in the Cannes-award-winning sci-fi drama Little Joe, the first English-language film by Austrian director Jessica Hausner. The question is as good a summation as any of the themes that Hausner has explored throughout her career, which began in 2001 with the horror-tinged coming-of-age tale Lovely Rita and has since moved through an array of styles and genres, from the thriller (Hotel) to the period piece (Amour fou). All of Hausner’s films point to her interest in the artificiality of what we call “nature,” mining dark, often morbid humor from the unreliability of our most firmly held convictions—including our faith in free will. Last month, when Hausner was in town to attend a retrospective of her work presented by Film at Lincoln Center, she took a moment to speak with us about a filmmaker who shares her suspicion of realism—Catherine Breillat—and one scene that slyly demonstrates the absurdity of ordinary human behavior. This article is edited together from our conversation.
At the beginning of Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl, we meet our protagonists, two French sisters. One is the title character, and the other is very explicitly her opposite: she’s slender and very beautiful. They enter a café, and the fat girl sits down beside a handsome Italian man, and her sister tells her off and explains that this is impolite, that she can’t just sit there. Then the beautiful girl takes her place next to the man, and during their encounter they exchange no more than a few sentences before they start holding hands and kissing.
An Italian guy has met a French girl: we’re in a heaven of eroticism! It’s at this moment that we as an audience come to understand what Breillat is trying to achieve, not naturalism but a kind of ironic short cut through reality. We’re watching what we already knew was going to happen: at some point in the story, these two good-looking people were going to kiss. They’re behaving not in the way they want to but in the way they have to.
That’s where humor comes from: a sudden understanding of the ridiculousness of the human condition. And I think the best movies share this. This scene strikes me because it shows us how we all behave according to certain patterns. It shows us the artificial mechanisms by which we live together and interact. We’re not very original; there’s a textbook for our path in life, and we learn it and follow it.
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