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Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe is one of the most keenly anticipated movies here in Cannes. This brilliant director from Austria has a fascinating body of work – her Lourdes (2009), a mysterious, challenging film about miracles, has a claim to the status of modern classic.
But I was disappointed by this new film, her first in English. It’s a quasi sci-fi chiller about people’s behaviour and language being creepily altered; perhaps its numb weirdness is down to a director with no instinctive feeling for the English language. But it’s a fascinating looking film, shot in a cold, clear, crisply refrigerated style that provides an exhilaration of its own.
Emily Beecham (from the recent British indie film Daphne) stars as Alice, a workaholic scientist who is developing a top-secret strain of genetically engineered plant whose microbial scent will make people happy. She is divorced and has a school-age son called Joe (Kit Connor). Among her colleagues is Chris (Ben Whishaw), who may well be in love with her, and Bella (Kerry Fox), an older scientist who has just recovered from a breakdown and is permitted to bring her dog to work, wittily named Bello. Soon Alice starts breaking the procedural rules about what she is allowed to do to accelerate the plant’s development. She even brings one home and names it “Little Joe”, a plant with fine, spiky red fronds that stir like the jaws of a venus fly trap. And yes, it starts having an effect on people. But what sort of effect?
At first glance, this looks like a scary movie in a Wyndhamesque vein like The Day of the Triffids, or The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village of the Damned). And the buildup is great: there are magnificent shots of football field-sized arrays of plants, all minutely shifting and stirring in the eerily controlled hi-tech greenhouse, like something in a documentary by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, who is a master of this sort of alienated-nature tableau. The scientists themselves, affectless and introverted in their white coats, add to the strangeness. What is going to happen? What skin-crawling developments are going to creep up on us? What denouement is going to scare us senseless?
That remains an open question. It feels as if this movie is too grandly high on the arthouse register to bother with out-and-out thrills or suspense. And there are plot implausibilities that a humble genre movie might have ironed out at the script stage: would a high-level scientific research facility allow dogs in? And is it really possible to break in with just a stolen ID?
The awful truth is that the plants don’t seem to be changing people’s behaviour in any obviously entertaining or scary way – or even in a clever one. The point seems to be that the affected people are perceived bizarrely to be impersonating themselves, or that they will release urges that have been suppressed, such as Alice’s guilty desire to free herself of the bonds of parenthood. But none of this is represented in any compelling dramatic style, and the actors – all very talented and assured – have perhaps not had clear enough direction. It is a mood piece. Whose mood leads nowhere.
•Little Joe screened at the Cannes film festival.
Source: The Guardian
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