Little Joe

 

starstarstarhalf

 


An unexpected venture by Jessica Hausner that echoes several classic films and yet has a voice of its own.

   
Little Joe  

Emily Beecham

 

Little Joe is the first film in English to have been made by the Austrian director Jessica Hausner best known to us for Lourdes (2009). It often happens that a European filmmaker switching to an English language project seems ill-at-ease and it is indeed the case that Little Joe appears to have divided critical opinion. However, for most of its length I found it an engagingly original work, no masterpiece admittedly but a decidedly individual piece and one with a great soundtrack featuring music by the Japanese composer Teiji Ito.

 

Despite its originality, Little Joe is a work that brings other films to mind and, in particular, it is obviously indebted to the Don Siegel classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955). Where that film featured growing greenhouse pods capable of taking over and inhabiting human beings who nevertheless remained unaltered in appearance, Little Joe is concerned with newly developed plants designed to give off perfume that will make prospective purchasers experience a deep sense of happiness. The staff involved in this experiment include Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) who is now acting as a single mother in bringing up her son Joe (Kit Connor) following the break-up of her marriage to Ian (Sebastian Hülk). Among her work colleagues we find Chris (Ben Whishaw), who dotes on her without getting any real response, and Bella (Kerry Fox) who is more experienced in the work but is known to have suffered of late from mental problems.

 

Bella is the one who astounds Alice when she claims that the plants are dangerous: her suggestion is that those who actually take in their perfume through being unprotected by the lab masks that are always worn find that their minds are affected. Bella's assertion is that her dog has suffered this change of character and that, though he looks the same, he is no longer her dog. Alice, who has earlier taken one of the plants home as a gift for her schoolboy son and even given this plant the name of Little Joe, initially regards Bella's comments as down to her mental issues, but then she starts to see changes in Joe. She mentions this to her psychiatrist (Lindsay Duncan) but, knowing that her patient feels guilty as a workaholic for not paying enough attention to her son who is suddenly wanting to see more of his father, the psychiatrist sees these factors as highly relevant when Alice begins to change her attitude and to accept Bella's views as valid.

 

Hausner very deliberately gives her film a cool, detached tone. Indeed, the use of music that is disturbing in an almost other-worldly way makes us sometimes feel that the tale is being told from the viewpoint of the alien plants themselves. That in turn could suggest that the film is conditioned by being seen through the eyes of somebody who is unbalanced, be it Bella or Alice or, indeed, both of them. The basic ambiguity prompts thoughts of another classic film, Jack Clayton's The Innocents (1961), while Hausner's refusal to play up any on-screen visual horror is akin to the approach of Val Lewton in his famed works of the 1940s. Little Joe stumbles only when in its last ten minutes or so these ambiguities, which are at the heart of its appeal, are replaced by certainties in scenes which also suffer from meandering on unnecessarily. But, if a sharper close would be better, the last moment of all is most adeptly chosen and, while this is not really an actors' film, both Beecham and Fox give very well judged performances.  Full marks too for the production design.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, Kit Connor, David Wilmot, Phénix Brossard, Sebastian Hülk, Lindsay Duncan.

 

Dir Jessica Hausner, Pro Bruno Wagner, Bertrand Faivre, Philippe Bober, Martin Gschlacht, Jessica Hausner and Gerardine O'Flynn, Screenplay Jessica Hausner and Geraldine Bajard, Ph Martin Gschlacht, Pro Des Katharina Woppermann, Ed Karina Ressler, Music Teiji Ito, Costumes Tanja Hausner.

  
coop99/The Bureau and Essential films/Austrian Film Institute/BBC Films-BFI Films.
105 mins. Austria/UK/Germany. 2019. Rel: 21 February 2020. Cert. 12A.