It was only a matter of time before Jessica Hausner’s clinical visual style was applied to science-fiction. In Little Joe, the Austrian director’s first feature in the English-language, her deliberately artificial aesthetic (see Amour Fou) seeps into the very topics of the story.
Emily Beecham plays Alice, a plant breeder at a corporation that is creating new breeds of plants. She is also the single mother of well-behaved teenager Joe (Kit Connor) and the two are close, even though she tends to work long hours. Everything is going well, and Alice even has a prospective boyfriend in her colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw). And yet, the scientist is developing a new breed of flowers aimed at making their owners happier. All that it asks for in return are regular supplies of water, warmth, and attention in order to survive: “it likes being talked to,” Alice tells her colleagues with a smile.
The metaphor is obvious to the viewer and to the characters themselves, and soon, Alice calls her creation “Little Joe” after the name of her own son. Unfortunately, what comes after the set up of this basic premise is just as obvious and expected: after Alice brings one of the flowers home for her son, he soon begins to act differently, as do all the other scientists who work with the plant without a protective mask on. Their not-so-slightly robotic behaviour and near obsession with Little Joe immediately bring to mind the sci-fi classic Invasion Of The Body Snatchers — a resemblance which the film, however, appears utterly unaware of.
But even without this hunch, the story’s progression remains bewilderingly predictable. More than that, it is even signposted, with Alice regularly spelling out her doubts and worries to her psychiatrist. It is a strangely perfunctory way of making sure the audience gets what is going on, but more dispiriting is the way it is used to introduce the idea of gaslighting: could it be that Alice is the one losing her mind? This is not something we feel, but something we’re told through this poor narrative device, and after faintly suggesting the idea of a big twist, the film returns to its more logical, anticipated conclusion.
With little to chew on in terms of suspense and a metaphor that fails to send the mind reeling, the eye drifts towards the set design. But as the and well-ironed, colour-coordinated outfits of the cast (think Spike Jones’ Her) and the monochrome sets simply reiterate the thematic of “real vs. artificial life” already explored in the story, even the film’s visual style feels like a patronising explanation of Little Joe’s simple metaphor.
Little Joe was seen and reviewed at Cannes Film Festival 2019.