“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.
The power play between the sisters continues throughout the film. Having a sister myself, I can only say: yes, that’s how it is! Girls can be extremely competitive and manipulative—and I don’t think of this as a negative thing. In a sense it proves we can be very intelligent and aware of what’s going on around us, even at a young age. Already in this early scene the sisters are operating at a level of manipulation that is quite advanced. They understand much more than their parents do, and because of this they don’t make it easy for each other. They are hardened against each other.
While the beautiful girl and the handsome man are carrying out their seduction, the fat girl is on the other side of the table eating a banana split. There’s a similar moment in my graduation film, Inter-View (1999), where a heavy-set girl eats ice cream while a very attractive young man tries to tell her that he loves her. Eating is so close to sexuality: Breillat’s fat girl is trying to get some comfort, to have an experience of her physical existence. But she’s also performing a kind of self-punishment, in a way that’s not so different from what the pretty girl is doing by involving herself with a man without even really wanting to.
When I first saw Fat Girl, at the time of its release, I liked it, but I remember thinking that the sexuality in it was so distant from what I had experienced in my own life, and I was angry that the pretty girl ends up being controlled by this man. I couldn’t accept that both of the sisters, in their own way, become victims of sex. I was closer to the age of the characters then and I was judging the film from a much more moralistic perspective, but today I see it differently. I love the crazy openness of this film, the freedom Breillat gives herself to address things you wouldn’t normally talk about.
Now that there are more women filmmakers out there, it’s easier to see the contrasts between them, rather than just being glad that they even exist. Where before I would have been happy to see anything by Breillat or Jane Campion, both of whom I like, now I can say that I feel a deeper kinship with one over the other. I can see more clearly the connection I have with Breillat. From Fat Girl onward, she moved into a very artificial style of filmmaking—you can see it in a movie like Anatomy of Hell—and the further I advance in my own work, the more I think I understand what she’s doing. Artificiality is at the heart of my new film, Little Joe, which asks: can we ever be sure that people are who we think they are? In psychoanalysis there’s a concept called the Capgras syndrome, in which a person starts to believe that someone he or she knows well has been kidnapped and replaced by an imposter. I think in some ways this is a part of our daily lives. You even feel it in this scene in Fat Girl; there’s a sense that none of us is operating according to any true feeling or free will or intention.
I rewatched the movie recently, and I started thinking about how this scene sets up everything that comes after. Later on, there are moments where we aren’t sure if what we’re seeing is actually happening. You think the character is going to wake up and it’s all going to have been a dream, but she doesn’t. That is especially true in the brutal assault at the end, which, like the kissing in that early scene, happens so abruptly and without explanation. It’s astonishing. It’s so rare and unusual for a film to completely turn your perception of reality upside down, to the point that you would believe a dream as much as reality—because reality itself is like a dream. This is precisely what interests me in cinema. I don’t need to see what I’ve seen a hundred times before. This scene brings us to a level of surrealism that feels revolutionary to me.