Little Joe, the sixth feature film by director Jessica Hausner, already in competition at the Cannes Film Festival 2019 (where the protagonist Emily Beecham won the Best Actress Award), is a deliberately ambiguous work, which does not aim to give precise answers to the questions raised and which makes this ambiguity its greatest strength. At the Viennale 2019.
A flower to be happy
What would happen in the world if something capable of making us happy forever was invented? Would it really be a completely ideal situation or would numerous other problems crop up? Austrian director Jessica Hausner – one of the best-known names outside of Austria – has attempted to answer this question in her own way with her film Little Joe, which has already been screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival 2019 (where the lead actress Emily Beecham received the Best Actress Award) and is currently being screened again, as one of the most awaited titles, at the Viennale 2019.
But who is, or, better said, what is, in fact, Little Joe? Little Joe is nothing more than a flower. A sort of miraculous flower able, with its perfume, to make human beings happy, in fact. An experiment, this one, that Alice, a young scientist and mother of the teenage Joe, is working on. However, she will soon notice that the plant she has created will have strange effects on anyone who comes into direct contact with it.
A good suspense, therefore, will not be lacking in this most recent work by Hausner either. And the director, in fact, in her second international production (the first is the feature film Lourdes, made in 2009, which was partly produced in France), has borrowed heavily from what had been already made in the past. Impossible not to think, for example, of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), as well as – in a very, very broad sense, of course – of another iconic film by the unforgettable George Romero, Night of the Living Dead (1968). But, be careful. In this case, we are not talking about a horror film, but rather, more of a science fiction feature. Because if, during her long and prolific career, Jessica Hausner has in fact tried her hand at the most disparate film genres – from the classic coming-of-age with Flora (1995) and Lovely Rita (2001) to the psychological horror with Hotel (2004), without forgetting religious satire with Lourdes (2009) or the costume drama with Amour Fou (2014) – here she is approaching a new direction, in which she seems, however, completely at ease.
Even though Little Joe deals with entirely new situations, one can recognise Hausner’s unique stylistic trademark, with so many long shots that focus now on the characters, now on the surroundings, with clear and decidedly bright colours (in particular in regard to the ‘Little Joe’ flower itself) and a perfectly symmetrical frame composition. This is also achieved thanks to the long-standing collaboration with cinematographer Martin Gschlacht, one of the most influential names in his field in Austria and abroad.
Impossible not to think, while watching Little Joe, of the previous Hotel, also. Especially with regard to particular atmospheres and a skillful crescendo of suspense that, in its time, made the director famous throughout the world. Yet, in her most recent work, the aesthetic seems less pronounced, less, if you like, gratuitous and, consequently, even more mature than in the feature film made a good fifteen years ago. Little Joe, on the other hand, presents itself as a deliberately ambiguous work, which does not aim to give precise answers to the questions raised and which makes this ambiguity its greatest strength.
The only flaw to be found in this film is, perhaps, a certain general predictability. But, in the end, is this really a flaw or is the solution chosen by the author probably the only one possible to make the film work? This question is probably a sign that Jessica Hausner’s initial intentions have definitely been successful.
Original title: Little Joe
Directed by: Jessica Hausner
Country/year: Austria, UK, Germany / 2019
Running time: 105’
Cast: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Connor, Phénix Brossard, Leanne Best, Andrew Rajan, David Wilmot, Goran Kostic, Yana Yanezic, Sebastian Hülk, Jessie Mae Alonzo, Jason Cloud, Lindsay Duncan, Craig McGrath, Marie Noel, Andreas Ortner
Screenplay: Jessica Hausner, Géraldine Bajard
Cinematography: Martin Gschlacht
Produced by: Coop99 Filmproduktion, The Bureau, Essential Filmproduktion GmbH