Photo: Austrian Film Institute
Before We Vanish by Daniel Gorman Film

Little Joe | Jessica Hausner

December 28, 2019

The films of Jessica Hausner can be maddeningly opaque, but obfuscation is a feature, not a bug. Her newest film, Little Joemakes a fascinating double feature with 2009’s Lourdes, a film that also takes a fantastical scenario and grounds it in the quotidian. In fact, Little Joe could be considered a secular version of that earlier film’s exploration of a deeply religious phenomenon — namely, how do we respond in the face of something ultimately inexplicable and unknowable? To even describe the plot of Little Joe is a spoiler of sorts, as calling it a riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers basically gives the game away. But the film is so masterfully constructed, so deeply considered, that it is spellbinding even when one knows the inevitable narrative conclusion. In Hausner’s droll version of the oft-told story, scientists Alice (Emily Beecham) and Chris (Ben Whislaw) have developed a new kind of flower, one that demands laborious attention but rewards it’s keeper with feelings of happiness. Beecham takes one home to her son Joe, and soon he’s acting differently. Eventually, everyone in the lab is acting strangely and Beecham is left wondering if she is going insane or if this plant is actually changing the people around her.

Hausner has a dry sense of humor, and it’s to the film’s credit that any character changes are only subtly pitched after their potential infection at the hands of this genetically-engineered botanical monstrosity. It’s a matter of degrees, a dead-eyed look or a lingering smile or a too-friendly ‘hello,’ that gives everything a slightly ‘off’ feeling. Hausner has a detached, almost clinical visual style. The camera is constantly panning left or right in slow, metronomic rhythm, or will very gradually push in to isolate something or someone. Hausner frequently uses windows and glass panes to visually separate characters within the frame, creating a profound sense of solitude. Some critics have suggested Little Joe is a kind of metaphorical indictment of antidepressants, but the film resists any straightforward, literal reading. Certainly there’s something here about the nature of parenting, losing oneself totally in the care and tending of someone or some thing. But Little Joe feels to be getting at something even larger, and perhaps even more ineffable than that. It’s a profoundly 21st Century film, replete with sinister corporations, science run amok, lax regulations, dismissal of mental health concerns, and the desire to control and organize nature to our own liking. In the old symbolic battle between the garden and the wilderness, Hausner has weaponized the garden.

Published as part of December 2019’s Before We Vanish.