Jessica Hausner’s first English-language film is a chilling SF piece with a performance from Emily Beecham which won Best Actress at Cannes.
Alice (Emily Beecham) is a scientist who has engineered a plant which has a scent that effects the mood of everyone who smells it, namely to make them happy. She lives alone with her teenage son Joe (Kit Connor), having separated from Joe’s father. In honour of her son, Alice calls the plant Little Joe. But soon things change. Her coworker Bella (Kerry Fox) says that her dog is behaving differently after it sniffs the plant. Soon Alice wonders what she has unleashed…
Little Joe is Austrian writer/director Jessica Hausner’s fifth feature film. Although she has worked again with some of her usual collaborators, such as co-writer Géraldine Bajard, cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, production designer Katharina Wöpperman, editor Karina Ressler and costume designer (and sister) Tanja Hausner, it’s her first film in English. Little Joe takes us into science fiction territory, with intended overtones of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Also in the mix is Frankenstein, with the creator of artificial life being a woman instead of a man.
The first thing you notice about the film is its look, especially in the scenes at the institute where Alice works: all muted colours, many of them white, grey or pale green, with just the colours of the flowers and the red of Alice’s hair standing out. An intentionally sterile world. The film was made and released before the Covid-19 pandemic but the shots of characters in facemasks give it an additional resonance now.
Little Joe is a somewhat chilly film, and some will find it too emotionally detached. Part of that is due to Hausner’s filmmaking style. Many compositions are symmetrical, but occasionally Hausner uses walls and windows to create frames within frames. Twice, she frames a composition with both speakers at the side of frame, moving in slowly so that they both disappear off the sides, while the conversation continues. Some intentionally discordant music from Japanese composer Teiji Ito, not specifically composed for the film, adds to the effect.
Ultimately the film remains ambiguous. We’re left to decide if Little Joe and its fellow plants are having the effect they seem to have, and which of the characters we see are changing their behaviour because of it, or if there is a naturalistic, psychological explanation. We’re kept intentionally at arm’s length.
What does work against this are the performances, particularly from the two women at the centre of the film: Emily Beecham (who won Best Actress at Cannes in 2019) and Kerry Fox. Alice keeps much to herself at work, not responding to the clear interest from colleague Karl (Ben Whishaw). Her main connections are to her son, who is now a teenager with all that implies for behavioural change, plant- or hormone-induced or both, and to her psychotherapist (Lindsay Duncan). By the end of the film, she has a connection with someone else. Bella is the first to spot something wrong but she’s disregarded due to her history of mental illness.
Like the pollen from the flower of the title, Little Joe is a film that gets under your skin (if maybe not up your nose, but that’s up to you). Slowly, subtly, it builds up an atmosphere of unease which is hard to shake off.
Little Joe is a dual-format release from the BFI. A checkdisc of the Blu-ray (Region B only) was received for review. The DVD, not seen, is PAL format and Region 2. The film has a 12 certificate.
Shot digitally on the Arri Alexa Mini, Little Joe is presented on this disc in the intended ratio of 1.85:1. As mentioned above, Gschlacht’s cinematography favours mostly muted colours and flat surfaces, and that comes over well in this transfer. You would expect this to be pristine, as the film has existed in the digital realm from start to finish, and it does.
The soundtrack is available in both DTS-HD MA 5.1 and LPCM Surround (2.0). I listened to the former and sampled the latter, and there’s very little difference between them, so the choice is yours and that of your equipment. English subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing, on the feature only, and I detected no errors in them.
The on-disc extras have a Play All option. They begin with two post-film Q & As, both conducted by Geoff Andrew. The first (16:44) took place after the London Film Festival screening on 4 October 2019 and features both Hausners, Bajard, Beecham and Fox. The second (37:25) features Jessica Hausner solo, and took place at the BFI Southbank on 21 February 2020. That was the date of the film’s UK cinema release and was part of a season which also showed her other feature films.
Inevitably this duplicates some of the material from the earlier Q & A, and is more of a career overview. For both, questions from the audience are edited out and replaced by onscreen captions. In the second Q & A, clips from three of Hausner’s films are edited out, though she and Andrew do still discuss them. If you haven’t seen her first film, Lovely Rita, be aware that this Q & A contains major spoilers for it.
Also on the disc is a much shorter (2:23) interview with Emily Beecham, made even shorter by the fact that half of it is made up of material from the film’s trailer. That is also on this disc, and runs 1:56.
The final extra is one of those well-chosen if tangential items that often feature on BFI releases. It’s F. Percy Smith’s 1910 film The Birth of a Flower (7:46), a silent film presented here with a music score in LPCM Surround. Smith was a pioneer of microphotography and time-lapse, and this short film, showing various flowers and plants opening, caused Edwardian audiences to call for it to be shown again as soon as it had finished. More than a century later, it’s captivating still. Smith has his own showcase from the BFI, Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith, which I reviewed here.
The BFI’s booklet, with the first pressing only, runs to twenty-eight pages. It begins with Jessica Hausner’s director’s statement (with a spoiler warning), where she talks about the inspiration for the film, its themes (including that of mother love, of “crazy” women, and of the Frankenstein story, itself of course the work of a woman), and its look and sound. This is followed by Little Joe’s review in Sight & Sound by Catherine Wheatley and the same magazine’s feature article on the film by Kate Muir. Also in the booklet are film credits, and notes and credits for the extras.
Little Joe will be released on Dual-format DVD & Blu-ray on Monday 15th June
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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