Review: Little Joe
by Fabien Lemercier
- CANNES 2019: Austria’s Jessica Hausner puts her name to a hugely cerebral psychoanalytical film with a societal focus, flirting with the genre of sci-fi chiller and the world of genetic mutations
"Who can prove the sincerity of human feelings?" It is this huge question and its many other derivatives that Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner has decided to tackle in her genre film and first English-language feature Little Joe [+see also:
interview: Jessica Hausner
film profile], which was unveiled in competition at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival. Clearly, no-one expected the director who gifted us sophisticated offerings such as Lovely Rita [+see also:
film profile], Hotel [+see also:
film profile], Lourdes [+see also:
interview: Jessica Hausner
film profile] and Amour Fou [+see also:
film profile] to next turn her hand to an out-and-out sci-fi chiller. And whilst she’s chosen to home in on the highly fertile ground of technological progress and the more or less rational (or irrational, depending on your point of view) concerns which surround genetic mutations, it’s the human connection and what is not yet known about it that is actually placed under the microscope in the film, amidst great variation in individual perception.
Alice (Emily Beecham) is a plant breeder who works at the biotechnology laboratory Planthouse and who has created a very special red flower: when watered regularly, protected from the cold and heat and touched and spoken to, it releases a perfume which makes people happy - a reaction which comes courtesy of a maternity hormone - and which exhibits excellent market potential, pending the necessary allergen tests. But little by little, off the back of several incidents, the seeds of doubt begin to grow in the mind of the increasingly anxious researcher who has, moreover, given one of these blooms to her own teenage son Joe (Kit Connor), whom she lives with on her own, having christened the flower “Little Joe”. A confirmed workaholic, racked with guilt for not being around for her son and scared she’s going to lose him, but also wrestling with an unconscious yearning for him to vanish from her life, Alice is a rather uptight woman who reacts awkwardly to the advances of her colleague, Chris (Ben Whishaw). And when Joe’s behaviour begins to change and he distances himself from his mother, she starts to seriously consider the possibility that Little Joe might have mutated into a pathogenic virus which contaminates humans and monopolises their empathic abilities so that these are used solely to the benefit of the flower and its survival (as the flower was created to be infertile).
Playing with the mechanisms of a horror film in the vein of Frankenstein, in an atmosphere that’s stylised to perfection (especially the huge and ultra-secure transparent laboratory-plantation where dozens of Little Joes unfurl their red petals under the watchful eye of white coat-wearing scientists decked out in green gloves and anti-pollen masks), Jessica Hausner takes a highly methodical approach to her exploration of the nature of human feelings and the total subjectivity of the understanding (or lack thereof) that we have of the environment and other living beings. Who can really tell the truth from a lie? This is a question which can be asked of the most scientifically advanced domains, but also in terms of the bond that exists between a mother and her child. With its psychoanalytic substratum, the film ultimately reveals itself to be a very subtle work which is beautifully directed, but whose cold distance from the viewer is so keenly felt that we can only admire its finesse from far off.
(Translated from French)
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