Join SoundtrackStream to find out the article “Little Joe review – The Day of the Triffids meets Little Shop of Horrors | Science fiction and fantasy films”
In Danse Macabre, his piercing analysis of the horror genre, Stephen King cites a key moment of uncanny weirdness from Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers. Convinced that her Uncle Ira is not her Uncle Ira any more, the apparently delusional Wilma Lentz has discreetly checked his neck, where Ira had a tiny scar. “And the scar’s gone?” our narrator asks, suddenly excited by the possibility of proof. “No!” replies Wilma, almost indignantly. “It’s there – the scar – exactly like Uncle Ira’s!”
That moment of what King calls “utter subjectivity, and utter paranoia” kept coming back to me while watching Little Joe, an icily satirical psychological sci-fi thriller from Jessica Hausner, the Austrian writer-director behind Lourdes and Amour Fou. A fairytale-inflected yarn about a genetically engineered plant that may or may not be infecting human minds, Little Joe is described by its creator as “a parable about what is strange within ourselves”, and is full of Finney-esque details in which the familiar seems alien – not least when troubled plant-breeder Bella (played with nerves on display by Kerry Fox) declares that her beloved dog, Bello, is “not my dog” anymore. Later, Alice (Cannes prize winner Emily Beecham), whose new flower is being rushed to market, worries that she “just doesn’t know” her pubertal son, Joe, any more, an assessment her colleague and wannabe paramour Chris (played with a passively sinister lilt by Ben Whishaw) puts down to him simply “growing up”.
Beecham is brilliantly brittle as the botanist whose red hair mirrors the vivid hue of the titular plant she conceives – a Frankenstein’s monster-like creation that she has tellingly named after her son. Designed to “make its owner happy”, Little Joe’s mood-lifting smell triggers the production of oxytocin – “the mother hormone” that will make you “love this plant like your own child”. But what if Little Joe wants children of its own? In a world in which the reproductive urge is “what gives every living being meaning”, could this deliberately sterile plant be turning human heads to its own ends, albeit imperceptibly?
“I can’t control everything,” Alice tells her psychotherapist (Lindsay Duncan, quietly aloof), who suspects that she’s simply projecting anxieties about her perceived maternal failings on to the fruits of her professional labours. Maybe she’s right, maybe it’s all just a figment of Alice’s imagination, a manifestation of a guilty desire to be rid of one child in order to tend to another – the one she has created at work. “You’re a good mother,” says Bella, “but which of your children will you choose?” Crucially, Hausner and regular writing collaborator Géraldine Bajard leave that choice to the viewer. As with Lourdes, the central “miracle” here remains an enigma – as real or unreal as each audience member wants it to be.
Set in a nonspecific world that seems to slip geographically between Liverpool and mainland Europe, and dressed in costumes that bizarrely reminded me of the 70s sci-fi series UFO, Little Joe combines the faceless fears of Brave New World or The Stepford Wives with the Greek ghosts of the lotus eaters and the very British unease of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids – with a dash of the absurdist “feed me!” satire of Little Shop of Horrors thrown in for good measure. That may sound like a chaotic cocktail, but Hausner’s needle-sharp chiller is as rigidly ordered and minutely controlled as the labs in which Little Joe is grown.
From the sedate swirl of an overhead surveillance camera to the elegant glides and eerily creeping slow zooms of key dialogue scenes, Martin Gschlacht’s cinematography has an almost Kubrickian choreography, mesmerising the audience with what they can see while taunting them with what they can’t. Superbly co-ordinated costume and production design by Tanja Hausner and Katharina Wöppermann respectively paint the screen in shades of chlorophyll green, splashed with precisely dotted spots of red, yellow and blue. It’s a hermetically sealed environment in which nothing is there by accident – a world of hyper-real abstraction, conjured with the clarity of a waking dream.
While the visuals are immaculate, the soundtrack is electrifying, opening with a tinnitus-like noise that scrapes at the edges of the frame, before moving into a cacophony of drums and dog barks that echo the growing air of paranoia. Using tracks from the Watermill album by Japanese composer Teiji Ito, whose music accompanied the films of Maya Deren, Hausner creates a sonic backdrop in which wind instruments blow Little Joe’s pollen around like a hypnotic snake charmer while plucked strings pick aggressively at the seams of normality.
For some, Little Joe may seem too sterile to engage emotionally, but I found it glassily unsettling – even more so on second viewing. Inhale at your peril.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Little Joe review – The Day of the Triffids meets Little Shop of Horrors | Science fiction and fantasy films