Jessica Hausner’s odd and ominous Little Joe feels like a film-length episode of Black Mirror with an IKEA aesthetic. A horticulturalist’s Invasion of Body Snatchers, Hausner crafts a richly colorful and quirky mise-en-scène, using deliberate slow-sweeping camera movements and a jarringly unnerving soundtrack to create an atmosphere of dread. Even when there’s not much action occurring on screen, there’s an underlying sense that something is dreadfully off, that violence could break out at any moment. At one moment, when a dog jumps out from hiding under a table, a fellow Cannes film critic in my row also leapt out of his seat, arms flailing in fear while he emitted a loud, uncontrollable gasp. Such is Little Joe—it gets into your brain and brings out all sorts of tacit feelings and reactions.
The titular character—and I think it’s safe to call it a character—is a newly bioengineered plant created by breeder and single mother Alice (Emily Beecham). Her bright red bob haircut and pastel wardrobe fit right in with the world Hausner has created, full of bright reds and greens, pinks and purples, all starkly contrasted again laboratory whites and pale seafoam green lab coats. Alice and her co-worker Chris (Ben Whishaw) have crafted a crimson plant specially designed for therapeutic pleasure: if one waters and cares for the plant, even talking to it, its scent will give the human owner a jolt of happiness, literally a blast of oxytocin to the brain. “What this plant really needs is love,” says Chris. If loved, the plant will love in return.
But what happens if the plant feels unloved or mistreated? As part of its design, Alice has made the plant sterile, unable to reproduce itself without the bioengineers. This is partly for environmental purposes, but as Chris confesses later, it’s also for marketing and business—if you can only get the happy-bearing plant from one source, that source can charge any price. But Alice’s other co-worker, Bella (Kerry Fox), is not so sure about the plant’s capabilities, nor the choice to make it infertile. “The ability to reproduce is what gives every living being meaning,” she argues. It’s an interesting thesis, and one which challenges Alice’s own tensions between being a mother to her young teenage son, Joe (Kit Connor), and her dedication to her work.
So when the plant—named Little Joe after Alice’s son—begins to unexpectedly emit pollen on its own, it raises some concerns. These concerns increase into outright fear as those who have inhaled the pollen appear to be changed, albeit in such a subtle way as to seem relatively normal. Bella expresses the most paranoia about this supposed difference, even putting down her beloved dog, Bello, after he begins acting peculiar following an encounter with the plant. Alice is unsure, but as strange behaviors continue to occur, she begins to fear the worst—that the plant has gone viral and is altering the brain chemistry of its human caretakers in order to reproduce itself via a human host. Yet in doing so, Little Joe may also make its host experience feelings of extreme pleasure and happiness, its alien red tendrils offering the gift of joy.
Which is where Little Joe’s metaphoric layers prompts all sorts of ideas and responses. The film addresses and critiques motherhood, workaholicism, addiction, mental health, antidepressants, the pharmaceutical drug industry, the effectiveness of counseling and therapy, and the economics of emotions. If you could feel happy all the time, what would you be willing to give up? Your integrity? Your freedom? Your own child? “I’m infected,” says Joe in a deadpan tone to his mother after she discovers he and his new girlfriend have been talking with Chris about Alice’s anxieties. “It’s like being dead. You know how you don’t know you’re dead?” He’s perfectly happy in this state. Of course, he bursts into laughter, tells her it’s all a joke, that there’s no infection or virus.
And this is power of mystery and metaphor in Little Joe—one could legitimately interpret that it all is, in fact, in Alice’s head and her paranoia is unfounded. Perhaps she’s just scared of a changing world around her. Her therapist (Lindsay Duncan) seems to think so. And Bella herself has a history of mental health issues, so she’s apparently not to be trusted. This draws out viewers own fears and beliefs about mental health, medication, and therapy—is it helpful or harmful to alter our brain chemistry in order to feel stable? Hausner imbues the narrative with unsettling dread not necessarily from its content, but from the formal aesthetics, particularly the jumpy, eclectic soundtrack and the perfectly-framed blocking. Often the camera will slowly wander between two characters talking, focusing on the wall behind them rather than their conversation, as if the camera were drifting away and distracted, or even drugged.
“Wouldn’t it be sad if they lost all feelings and just pretended to be happy?” inquires Bella. It’s the very question Hausner is provoking in Little Joe. As human beings created to feel and empathize and love, we are more than our affects and emotions, but we’re certainly not less than them.