The BFI London Film Festival often serves as a delightful celebration of British talent on the big screen. It’s rare, however, that the talent in question includes former Butlins Redcoat and best buddy to Ant and Dec: Stephen Mulhern. This is the wonderful world of Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe, in which the Austrian filmmaker translates her style into the English language for a tale of the dangers of genetically modified plants.
Emily Beecham won the Best Actress prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for her work as scientist Alice, who is the leader of the team that has created the titular flower. It’s an unusual, fast-growing plant that, when the scent is inhaled, unleashes oxytocin in levels that are near guaranteed to improve the mood of the flower’s owner. Meanwhile, she’s a single mum to the human Joe (Kit Connor) and is in the embryonic stages of an office romance with colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw). Naturally, or perhaps unnaturally, everything starts to go wrong pretty sharpish, with the suggestion that Little Joe might have something nasty in its DNA.
Infection control masks are soon de rigueur in all of the greenhouses, but various employees are acting very strangely. It’s no stretch to say that Hausner’s story has a lot of Invasion of the Body Snatchers lurking within its own mutated genetic code, but it wears its horror elements a little oddly. Hausner does, however, manage to conjure an elegant sense of dread, amplified by the offbeat musical score – 50% high-pitched shriek and 50% foreboding blasts of woodwind – and DOP Martin Gschlacht’s gliding, emotionless camera.
Little Joe is a strange, overly mannered movie that never seems entirely comfortable with its own genre elements. It’s meticulously made and engineered with every bit as much detail as the plants it depicts. This provides the film with its unique stylistic flourishes, including a repeated motif in which the camera zooms slowly into the dead space between the participants of a conversation as if pushing humanity to the outskirts of the frame and, ultimately, out of the way entirely.
When she’s not being pushed aside by the film’s heavily constructed mise-en-scene, Beecham is terrific as the driven mother of both boy and plant at the centre of the narrative. She is so blinded by love and affection that she doesn’t notice the world shifting around her, whether it’s the increasingly creepy Whishaw – in an unsettling subversion of his Paddington persona – or a colleague’s newly aggressive dog.
Unfortunately, these performances are not enough to take Little Joe over the line in terms of emotional intensity. Hausner’s movie is so overloaded with mannered style that it’s deliberately glacial pacing ultimately outstays its welcome and its messaging becomes muddied. There’s an engaging idea at the heart of Little Joe but, just like the flower that gives the film its title, there are a few rogue elements in the mix that turn the whole thing a little sour.
Dir: Jessica Hausner
Scr: Jessica Hausner, Géraldine Bajard
Cast: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox, David Wilmot, Phénix Brossard, Lindsay Duncan, Kit Connor
Prd: Bruno Wagner, Bertrand Faivre, Philippe Bober, Martin Gschlacht, Jessica Hausner, Gerardine O’Flynn
DOP: Martin Gschlacht
Country: UK, Austria, Germany
Run time: 105 mins
Little Joe is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival and will release in UK cinemas in February 2020.