Like Hitchcock’s birds, flowers aren’t the most obvious candidates for striking fear; and yet, in movies, there’s a definite trend of terror surrounding unnatural plant life. Whether it’s the alien seedpod imitators from Invasion of the Body-Snatchers or the endlessly hungry Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors, the human race has plenty to fear from these anthropomorphic mutations of nature.
In her English-language debut Little Joe, director Jessica Hausner takes this B-movie concept and sprays it with the nutrients of a more stylised character drama, about a plant breeder who grows an antidepressant flower. It’s a chilling, creepy, and quietly intriguing film to watch grow.
The opening shot overlooks rows and rows of thick, brown stems growing inside a very white laboratory. This is Planthouse, a biological company intent on creating new species of plant. The scientist Alice (Cannes-winner Emily Beechum) breeds a special crimson flower, named after her pubescent son Joe (Kit Connor), alongside her smitten co-worker Chris (a very blinky Ben Whishaw). Immediately, Hausner bathes Little Joe in evil.
The plant’s purpose is to make people happy, releasing a powerful ‘scent’ to assuage depression, and needs to be touched and talked to as much as watered. But Little Joe has a silent, aggressive personality – designed by artist and graphic novelist Marko Washke and shot like a patient omen by cinematographer Martin Gschlacht. The unsettling, experimental music from Teiji Ito, ranging from bongo drums to barking dogs, scratches the soundtrack whenever Little Joe’s presence is felt – either physically or when thought about.
Soon it transpires that Little Joe does more than make people happy. The people change, if only slightly – in fact, it’s barely noticeable – but that little difference is frightening (this is where the influence of Body-Snatchers really pulls through). The performances adjust to this subtle difference with such skill, showing Hausner’s precision as a director. Even though it’s clear the story won’t lead anywhere too apocalyptic, Hausner and co-writer Géraldine Bajard constricts its environment – offering plenty of insular, surreal, and psychological pleasures. Many scenes in Little Joe show an obvious love for the disturbing, visual uncertainty in Stanley Kubrick’s movies, reminding me especially of the vividly colourful glides in A Clockwork Orange and The Shining.
Little Joe has already sparked some controversy because of its apparent scepticism towards the modern need for antidepressants. And yes, admittedly, that was hard to put out of my mind. However, I don’t believe this was Hausner’s intention. The ‘scent’ is like any kind of sci-fi drug that alleviates suffering – like the reality-distortion drug Soma in Brave New World or the dopamine-ringing spice Melange in Dune – but also contains mind-control bacterium. Hausner invites many interpretations, but her film seems to be less an attack on antidepressants than a warning against dangerous conformity – which Alice inevitably faces as she realises the plant’s powers.
Little Joe is a slow-burner, for sure, so anybody expecting the exaggerated chaos of a B-movie guilty-pleasure will probably be disappointed; but it still seers on the mind. Hausner provides a lingering, if confusing, high.
Little Joe is released in cinemas on 21st February