In Jessica Hausner’s period drama Amour Fou, a young woman experiences a fleeting terror of flowers, though it turns out to be only one symptom of her consuming melancholia. But in Little Joe, this Austrian director’s fifth film and her first in English, there is every reason to fear them. A team of scientists, among them Alice (Emily Beecham), a single mother with a teenage son, and Chris (Ben Whishaw), who hopes to become something more than just her colleague, have created the world’s first mood-lifting, anti-depressant plant. In return for being touched and talked to, it emits a scent promoting happiness. But from the opening shots, which depict rows of these synthetic bulbs, accompanied by the sound of chimes and woodwind and a low electronic buzz, it’s clear there is something nasty in the topsoil.
The plant in its dormant state bears a resemblance to the bloodthirsty greenery from Little Shop of Horrors. Eventually, its leaves open and it sprouts a thistly crimson fur like the hair on the top of a plastic troll. The slightest attention is liable to trigger this change. When Alice breaks protocol by taking a plant home to her son, Joe (Kit Connor), the boy snaps a selfie with this new friend, which his mother has nicknamed “Little Joe”. In the presence of his camera, the plant dutifully blossoms and preens in a way that suggests traces of Kardashian DNA.
No one knows quite what the side effects of contact might be. A dog belonging to Alice’s co-worker Bella (Kerry Fox) is accidentally shut in the lab overnight, and isn’t quite the same the next morning. Even Bella can’t explain the difference. “That’s not my dog” is all she’ll say.
There is a change in Joe, too. He becomes distant from Alice, and starts speaking in the dispassionate tones of the children from Village of the Damned, the 1960 film of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos. (Wyndham also wrote the ultimate plant-based horror, The Day of the Triffids, which has its creepers all over Hausner’s movie.) Only occasionally will the director permit us the partial release of an old-fashioned shock. When violence does break out, she finds a way to stage it so that we feel the punch, as it were, without actually seeing it. Simmering dread is more her style; no wonder she co-opted the mysteriously clanging, hissing compositions of the late Teiji Ito for the soundtrack.
Several times she lets a scene play out almost to its conclusion before revealing in it some sinister unseen element. The first instance comes after Alice and Joe are eating a takeaway at the kitchen table; it’s always takeaway for dinner, which is not so much a jibe at single-parent meal-times as a comment on the craving for quick hits of unhealthy pleasure. Hausner then cuts to outside the house, with the camera spying menacingly on mother and son. At other moments, it zooms slowly towards two characters speaking, moving in closer until they disappear beyond the edges of the frame and we are left staring at the wall behind them.
This technique is replicated on the level of performance. Emily Beecham’s copper-coloured pageboy haircut can upset or dictate the colour balance of any scene: it looks especially vivid alongside the lab coats, which are a subtle shade of mint, as though someone put a green sock in with the whites. Alice’s personality, though, is unknowable to the point of vagueness; she only really comes into focus when frightened. It was smart of last year’s Cannes jury to award Beecham the Best Actress prize for this performance when so much of what she does on screen is about creating a kind of charged absence, finding character through recesses or negative space.
Anything definite that we learn about her comes during visits to a therapist (Lindsay Duncan), where she expresses the fear that something bad will happen to Joe. Bringing the boy into contact with Little Joe, however, is an act of sabotage, suggesting she would rather muffle whatever problems there are than deal with them. Her therapist listens but can she be trusted? Each time she appears, the flowers on her blouse have multiplied, and floral designs overrun the soft furnishings in her office like weeds in a forgotten garden.
For a while it seems that the plant might symbolise the mollifying deceptions of Brexit. That reading is briefly encouraged when the company growing the plants receives orders for its product from schools and hospitals; there have even been some from the EU, says one of the scientists, practically winking at the camera. But if the picture retains our fascination it’s because of its unresolved nature. Long before the plants start manufacturing their own seductive pollen, the mood in the film is already woozy, the sleepy-eyed camera attracted by any hint of the artificial: the garish cupcakes in the staff canteen, the unbalancing dabs of colour (a yellow hat, a red bucket) in an otherwise soothing pastoral landscape. It’s hard not to be haunted and impressed by an atmosphere of horticultural dread that goes far beyond anything on Gardeners’ Question Time.
Little Joe (12A)
dir: Jessica Hausner
This article appears in the 19 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics