Cannes 2019: Little Joe Review
This year’s Cannes competition features a Quentin Tarantino film about the murder of Sharon Tate, a social realist drama about a young Muslim boy who believes in Sharia law, and a four hour, sexually explicit film from a director accused of sexual assault. But until those premiere, the dubious honour of most problematic film of the festival goes to something nobody would have expected beforehand: a science fiction film about genetically designed plants.
Little Joe, the English language debut of Austrian director Jessica Hausner, is an irresistible, intoxicating throwback to the paranoid sci-fi of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and Day of the Triffids - but with an unfortunately troublesome allegory that made me feel guilty for being so swept away by the film’s simple genre pleasures. Some may sneer at the very deliberate stilted dialogue and kitschy production design which both emulate the paranoid thrillers of the genre’s previous golden age, but for me, this stylistic artifice is what helped me become engrossed in a film that hides its problematic allegory in plain sight. It’s incredibly difficult to reconcile Hausner’s ideas with the assured manner in which she tells her story; she confidently conjures up a creeping feeling of unease, that left me going with it even as the film left me uncomfortable for reasons it didn’t intend me to.
Emily Beecham stars as Alice, a celebrated plant breeder who is working on a new batch of plants which she is hoping to get ready in time to be the major showcase at a flower show. If kept at the right temperature, these plants have apparently beneficial side effects for their owner, effectively acting as anti-depressants that can improve their mood. But Alice has used an untested method to create these plants, and after taking one home for her son Joe (Kit Connor) soon notices a weird detachment in his behaviour after he inhaled its scent. People in the laboratory are beginning to act strangely; colleague Bella (Kerry Fox) is devastated as her dog has to be put down after inhaling this unusual aroma. She has theories as to why these plants are altering people’s moods, which Alice initially shrugs off - until everybody in her personal and professional life starts acting suspiciously like nothing has changed.
If you can’t tell from that synopsis, Hausner’s film is a weird parable on anti-depressants, and takes a surprisingly cynical stance on the idea of an artificial creation having an effect on your emotions. As with all works of science fiction, there are multiple interpretations to be found, but when a lot of the dialogue highlights the mood altering and emotion stunting qualities of inhaling the plant’s smell, this problematic reading is unavoidable - it’s even suggested in the third act that these plants could be sold to the NHS, as if to hammer this bizarre message home further. Hausner does, to her credit, make things a lot more ambiguous than this may sound; the character with a history of mental health issues, Bella, we are assumed to believe takes medication, and is often the only rational voice onscreen. But it’s hard to ascertain what else Hausner could be commenting upon, due to the sheer clarity of the allegory.
And yet, it’s very easy to overlook these flaws in the film’s thematic ideals due to how well Hausner has replicated and updated the genre stylings of the kind of sci-fi film they don’t make anymore. There’s a subtle retro futurism to the film’s style, right down to Beecham’s hair and make-up, that feels like a nod to the sci-fi films of old - at one point, it’s genuinely shocking to see a character use an iPhone and reveal the film is set in the present. And then there’s the mounting paranoia; the director has clearly studied older science fiction films with deeper societal allegories in preparation to make Little Joe, and her clear reverence for the genre shines through in every frame. It may be a left field turn for the director, but she adapts to it confidently. The mixed responses may neuter a revival for chilly 70s style sci-fi, but it’s refreshing to see a film like this in a time when most small sci-fi productions are overly concerned with artificial intelligence as their sole thematic concern.