Acclaimed Austrian director Jessica Hausner enters the race for this year’s Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival with Little Joe, a modest work of satirical sci-fi starring Emily Beecham and Ben Whishaw as two genetic engineers who create a “happy” plant.
Alice (Beecham) is a scientist who has developed a plant whose scent will make anyone who smells it happy. Undergoing final tests, the plant will be released commercially at an upcoming plant fair. So enamoured with her creation, Alice even brings one of the plants home, naming it “Little Joe” in honour of her son. However, all – in case you hadn’t guessed – is not well and the plant seems to be having an effect on those who come in contact with its sneaky little puffs of pollen.
First, the dog of her colleague Bella (Kerry Fox) becomes aggressive and then her own son seems to be behaving in an uncanny and disturbing way. Colleague Chris (Whishaw) is more interested in trying to romance Alice and even the corporate superiors at Planthouse, the company for which she works, are willing to overlook inconvenient side effects in order to have a product ready for the market.
Hausner is a master at revealing tight self-contained worlds, maintained by coercion and self-delusion with wit and precision. Her 2009 Venice entry Lourdes stripped the layers back from the holy shrine of the title. Little Joe is her English language debut, but the concepts are clearer and her own control of the material is evident. The details are everything: the way the canteen seems to serve only really nice cake, her endless takeaways and her psychiatrist’s office outre art. She also moves the camera with a fittingly inhuman gaze, focusing past two people talking and into space in between them, or tracking a room like a security camera. Even the costume design by Tanja Hausner maintains a mint and turquoise palet and neatness. A sterile cool that is part-laboratory and part-IKEA.
And yet the horror never really arrives. The music taken from Japanese composer Teiji Ito does a lot of heavy lifting with its knocking-on-wood percussion leading up to frenzied barking. It is the most unsettling thing about the film. There are hints of Frankenstein, Day of the Triffids and most clearly Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but the film remains as aloof as Alice and never fully commits to engaging us. Nothing gory or shocking ever actually occurs and even the creeping paranoia about science feels weirdly illiterate. Bella is angered that they made the plant sterile, proving she’s never eaten a seedless grape or a banana. The scientists also carry around one copy of Nature to help explain a plot point about how smell affects the brain, though at this point Hausner seems to be parodying the film she is making.
Compared to the sophisticated and nuanced horrors of Black Mirror, Little Joe feels like a fairly straightforward riff on a very familiar idea. The metaphorical strength of the happy plant – does being made happy artificially render you less human – is explained over again, but doesn’t fully land. But Hausner is a great director and this is an enjoyable and interesting film. But like many intelligent mainstream artists – paging Ian McEwan – she seems to have underestimated science fiction and offered something that has been done elsewhere and more interestingly.
The 72nd Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty