In every fairy tale there is a nucleus of truth. And it is hard not to qualify Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s fifth feature film Little Joe as a fairy tale. Little Joe‘s world is decidedly not ours, the visuals show us. But what happens in the film is a reflection of the real world. The science is real, and that is the nucleus of truth in this fairy tale.
Yet the film is so much more: hard sci-fi, something akin to Annihilation in idea. Psychological thriller, playing with the psyche of both the protagonist and the viewer. Absurdist comedy, setting the story in a lab that looks like a fashion house and which serves elaborate cupcakes in the cafeteria. Hitchcockian mystery, with its unnerving score (by Japanese composer Teiji Ito) heightening tension. All these genres blend together in a singular work that is hard to define, perhaps even harder to love (box office champion this will not be), but is something that draws you in, grows on you, and ultimately takes you over.
No wait, that’s the plant.
Back to the beginning: the fairy tale. Alice (Emily Beecham) is a senior plant engineer at Planthouse corporation, whose main business is growing new species. She has engineered a special crimson flower that is not only beautiful to look at, but also has therapeutic value: if handled with love and care and spoken to regularly, it will secrete a pollen that will make its owner happy. Alice gives one of the plants to her young son Joe (Kit Connor), even though this is against company policy. They decide on a name for the plant: Little Joe.
One day, the dog of Alice’s co-worker Bella (Kerry Fox) gets trapped in the company’s greenhouse where all the Little Joes are grown. Bella perceives a behavioral change in her dog, and she is convinced this is because he inhaled the pollen. She has the dog put down. Chris (Ben Whishaw), Alice’s assistant, has also inhaled the pollen. Does his behavior also change? Is he becoming more protective of Little Joe, or is Alice just imagining that? Meanwhile, the other little Joe (the human one) becomes more distant and combative towards his mother. Is this just a teenager acting out against a workaholic mother, or is Little Joe also affecting him? Has the plant, that was engineered to be sterile, developed a survival mechanism, influencing its owner to protect it at all costs?
The disconcerting thing about Little Joe is that for the longest time it is hard to discern whether the changes in behavior are real or not. These changes can have perfectly rational explanations. This is what Alice believes at first too, but over time she becomes less sure of this, and the audience is in the same position. The film unfortunately doesn’t hold this ambiguity all the way to the end, which would have made the experience all the more puzzling and uncomfortable, but that doesn’t negate the fact that Hausner has again crafted a film which is hard to pinpoint and always feels a bit off. Whether one is receptive to that or not will determine one’s love or hate for this film, since a middle ground seems impossible to find here.
One cannot discuss Little Joe without getting into the very distinctive and deliberate, exuberant aesthetics of the film, from Katharina Wöppermann’s production design to Tanja Hausner’s (sister of the director) costumes. Fraught with bright primary colors and soft pastels, the design work underlines that this is a fairy tale. While the deep artificiality of the work may keep the viewer at arm’s length, the point is that this deliberate construction of something beautiful to look at reflects the engineering of beautiful flowers done by the characters. By definition this work is unnatural, and one could construe an environmentalist message from the film, but that is not what Hausner seems to be going for.
Little Joe is more a parable for that which is strange within ourselves, a strangeness that can appear all of a sudden and change us. The familiar becomes the uncanny. The film offers the possibility that it is a psychiatric problem, akin to Capgras, the delusion that someone close to you has been replaced by an impostor. Little Joe toys around with this idea, never quite giving away whether this is all in Alice’s mind or whether her co-worker Bella was right all along. The end of the film does provide a definitive answer which sadly removes the mystery, but that cannot take away from Hausner’s creation of a unique, strange film which will please her fans, even if it might not make her many new ones.