Jessica Hausner is attempting to make a sound that, as she puts it, falls somewhere between juicy and cracking. It's the chilling sound of the titular botanical marvels at the dark heart of her new film Little Joe.
"I work with Erik Mischijew, a sound designer, and he's a really fun guy," says Hausner. "He records everything wherever he is. So he collects a lot of noises from reality and then changes them on the computer. So with Little Joe we basically used existing noises and stretched them. He used the cracking of an egg shell because it has this..."
And here comes the sound.
The Cannes Film Festival would be a good deal duller without controversies and jeering but from a distance Little Joe, the elegant, cerebral fifth feature from Austrian auteur Jessica Hausner, doesn't look like the kind of project that will get the Croisette riled up. A riff on Frankenstein, starring Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, and David Wilmot, it's a compelling, creepy tale of a genetically engineered plant designed to spread happiness. That very conceit has concerned and startled several critics and commentators.
“An award-winning science-fiction thriller billed by critics as a modern Day of the Triffids takes a provocative approach to Britain’s growing dependence on mood-lifting chemicals and antidepressants,” was the Observer’s take.
“A horticultural riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers that broadly likens the spread of antidepressants to a dehumanising alien force… can be seen as a direct attack on anyone who’s ever appreciated the benefits of a mood-enhancing pharmaceutical,” noted a considered IndieWire review.
“I like those interpretations,” says Hausner. “Because I like when journalists find a way to interpret my films. But personally I also feel that it’s more complicated than that. It’s a question about identity. It’s the question who is truly themselves. Do we know each other well? Do we have an idea of ourselves we protect?”
There are competing Joes in Little Joe. A hardworking divorced mother, Emily Beecham’s Alice, is increasingly torn between caring for her teenage son and her ambitious laboratory work. A plant breeder, she and her doting assistant (Wishaw) are on the verge of engineering a plant that can chemically induce joy. The plant, named after her son Joe, is Little Joe, and early indicators suggest it’s doing what it was designed to do. But might it be doing it’s job too well? One psychologically fragile co-worker (Kerry Fox) suggests a conspiracy not unlike the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Alice, who is already racked with maternal guilt and expressing irrational fears to her therapist (Lindsay Duncan), begins to worry about the effects of Little Joe on Joe.
“I didn’t have much interest in plants,” laughs Hausner. “I don’t have plants at home or anything, but I like the idea of the Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. That something invades the body or changes the mind in a way that the person is not the person anymore. But as a viewer, we can see that it is the same person. It also comes from an ancient idea about witchcraft. We think that plants have certain powers and properties.”
The film has, rightly, picked up multiple prizes at the Austrian Film Awards, at the Strasburg Fantastic Film Festival, and at Cannes, where it played as part of the main competition and saw Emily Beecham awarded best actress.
“She’s not playing a character that evokes strong emotions like tears,” says Hausner. “Normally the acting performances that win prizes are very dramatic and the role of Alice is not dramatic. It’s very fine. It’s very under the skin. Her emotions are all held back emotions and she’s not saying what she really thinks. Those contained emotions are something that Emily could do really really well. And I was very happy that was rewarded instead of someone who had to cry!”
In the programme notes from last year's retrospective of her work at New York's Lincoln Centre, Hausner was described as "Kubrick's heir". Comparisons with Kubrick's films have multiplied – or possibly blossomed – since Little Joe premiered last year. As with the director of Barry Lyndon and 2001: A Space Odyssey, there's a sense of carefully calibrated composition in every frame of Hausner's films. Working with regular cinematographer Martin Gschlacht and production designer Katharina Wöppermann, the camera moves like a ghost to an unsettling score by Teiji Ito, best known for his composition for Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon. The costumes are such a key component of the aesthetic that director of photography required that the stand-ins were in full costume as he was setting up each scene, so that he could determine the best lighting.
The director's sister and regular costume designer, Tanja Hausner, sets Emily Beecham's ginger bob against a powder pink blouse and a pale green lab jacket, an ensemble inspired by an image in a 1970s issue of Vogue. The look owes as much to fairy tales as it does to science fiction.
“The idea was basically to create a fairytale,” says Hausner. “Of course we play around with ideas about genetics. But it was so important not to set the film in that genre world of genetic thrillers. It’s a crossover film between science fiction and arthouse. But Little Joe takes place in a world apart. This is why we tried to create very artificial clothes and colours. To make it look like a fairytale. it should not look like it’s set in the world of gene technology.”
It’s not unusual for Hausner’s films to feel like fairytales, albeit with more complicated or ambiguous dimensions. Lovely Rita, the director’s debut feature, is a misshapen Cinderella narrative in which a surly young girl babysits for meanspirited neighbours, is shunned at school, and entertains two equally unsuitable suitors. Hotel, in which the heroine takes a job as a receptionist in a remote mountain resort, from which her predecessor disappeared, is pitched somewhere between Alice in Wonderland and Bluebeard. In Lourdes, a wheelchair-using woman with multiple sclerosis makes a pilgrimage to the French town of the title hoping for a miracle.
“I wasn’t aware of it in the beginning but after a few films I realised,” says the writer-director. “By the time I made Lourdes I noted that all the characters in my film are set up like they are in a fairytale. They’re archetypes more than specific individuals. For example, in Lourdes, there’s a girl in a wheelchair and then her pretty helper and the handsome knight and then the old witch. And you find other archetypes in Little Joe.”
The female voice
Hausner is the daughter of Viennese painter Rudolf Hausner and the half sister of set designer and painter Xenia Hausner. She started writing and shooting short films at 16 and at 18 entered the Filmacademy Vienna.
“The rest of my family are visual artists, they are painters,” says Hausner. “My father and my mother and older sister. So I never wanted to become a painter. It’s a very lonely job, I felt.”
Hausner made her Cannes debut in 1999 with her mid-length graduate film Inter-View. She has subsequently returned to Un Certain Regard with Lovely Rita, Hotel and Amour Fou. Little Joe was her first film to compete for the Palme d'Or. Hausner's films are rather more playful and fun than some of the more austere output of her Austrian contemporaries – think Markus Schleinzer's Michael (2011), Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Counterfeiters (2007) and the collective works of Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl. Does she feel like an outlier?
“Well, yes I do. But it’s also interesting that my films are sometimes more successful abroad and I have a feeling the same is true for Haneke and for Seidl. They are both famous. And I think, by now, they are appreciated in Austria. But Austria is a difficult place for filmmaking. It’s not really appreciated as an art. Commercial films are everywhere.”
Her primary influences as a filmmaker are other women filmmakers: "The American experimental filmmaker Maya Deren from the 1940s. I was inspired by her work a lot. In my film Hotel there are several shots and cinematography moments that I copied from her because she was reinventing and inventing a lot of tricks about editing and cinematography. And how you confuse the audience. The next woman was Jane Campion. I remember when Sweetie, her first feature film, got into Cannes. And that was so rare that a young woman could enter the competition. And more than that the film was funny and cool and entertaining."
The business, she says, is finally changing for women and minorities.
“The number of men in the business has always been bigger than the number of women. And if this changes, the decision-making will change. I’m looking forward to it because I think the female voice is as interesting as the male voice. And I think we will get used to it. Working on Little Joe with the BFI [British Film Institute] we had certain quotas for including female talent and non-white talent and it was a very, very good experience. Because you find good people and you open your horizons.”
Little Joe is released February 21