Cannes 2019: Jessica Hausner's 'Little Joe' is a Clever Little Fairytale
by Alex Billington
May 17, 2019
Maybe all we need is just a little bit of happiness. Maybe happiness is all there is. Or maybe not. Little Joe is a clever, crafty little sci-fi fairytale that is destined to become a cult classic. This low budget drama is the latest written and directed by Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner, and it's playing in competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. The film has some flaws, and is way too slow, but there's something alluring and intelligent about it that sticks with you and buries itself in your mind. And even though it's honestly pretty easy to figure out what's going on, it's the way she brings this idea to life and portrays it all on screen very minimally that makes it especially captivating. The film achieves so much (in the way of thought-provoking storytelling) with so little, an effective example of very low budget filmmaking expanding upon bigger ideas.
Set in the near future, the story is about a group of geneticists working as "plant breeders" at a corporation engaged in developing new species. They're testing the final batch of a new flower that is designed to emit a smell that will make its owner happy. Alice, played by British actress Emily Beecham, is the head of this particular flower project and she thinks they've perfected it, designing a flower that emits this special smell but in turn needs extra attention and warmth and watering daily, in addition to being spoken to in order to open up. While no one seems to notice, there's a side-effect to this flower as it begins to take over their lives. This concept fits right into the "Black Mirror" universe and the film could easily be trimmed to 50 minutes and work even better as a "Black Mirror" episode. I really dig these kind of smart, cautionary sci-fi stories.
The most banal yet accurate comparison I can come up with for this is that it's kind of an arthouse mashup of The Thing meets Little Shop of Horrors. Other critics are comparing it to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which also works, but this film has the eeriness of The Thing not to mention the way it's hard to tell who is infected. Little Joe is not horror by any means, and it's barely sci-fi to begin with anyway, but there's just enough intrigue worked into the script that it grabs a hold of your brain. The filmmaking is a bit stilted and way too drawn out (without making any difference), but I love the idea behind this film and the cleverness of how they brought it to life. And it's worth praising because it will definitely stick in my mind, and get into yours once you see it, and keep you thinking about the questions it poses and how they connect to our lives.
There's a mesmerizing score/soundscape used in this film as well, with various instruments and noises that are dynamic and seriously loud. The next iteration of an instrumental score following Mica Levi's brilliant work. It's a unique sound but it started to bother me a bit, almost becoming a character of its own, getting way too annoying when an ominous buzzing kept coming in. It doesn't work when the score is interrupting scenes, even if it is incredibly creative it's just too loud and should be more subtle. So many of the scenes are stilted and dragged out in a very obvious way, which some viewers may appreciate more than others. And it gets way too close to becoming dull, which is a shame because there's such fascinating, contemplative ideas presented in this cautionary tale. That said, I hope adventurous cinephiles will seek out and enjoy this film.
Alex's Cannes 2019 Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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