LITTLE JOE, a film by Jessica Hausner. Festival de Cannes Competition, 2019 official selection.
Alice, a single mother, is a dedicated senior plant breeder at a corporation engaged in developing new species.
She has engineered a very special crimson flower, remarkable not only for its beauty but also for its therapeutic value: if kept at the ideal temperature, fed properly and spoken to regularly, this plant makes its owner happy.
Against company policy, Alice takes one home as a gift for her teenage son, Joe. They christen it ‘Little Joe’ but as it grows, so too does Alice’s suspicion that her new creations may not be as harmless as their nickname suggests.
JESSICA HASNER’S STATEMENT
The idea behind the story is that every individual conceals a secret which cannot be completely appreciated by an outsider or even by that individual. Something strange inside us appears unexpectedly, and makes the familiar seem uncanny. Somebody we know suddenly seems strange. Proximity is transformed into distance. The desire for mutual understanding, empathy and symbiosis is unfulfilled.
In this sense, LITTLE JOE is a parable about what is strange within ourselves. This becomes tangible in the film by means of a plant which is apparently capable of changing people. As result of this change something unfamiliar emerges, and something believed to be secure is lost: the bond between two people.
WORKING ON THE SCRIPT
When working on the script with Geraldine Bajard, our concern was to create an atmosphere within the scenes that allows the audience to question the integrity of the characters involved.
We wanted to offer different ways of interpreting what is happening: the so-called changes in people can either be explained by their psychological state of mind, or by the pollen they have inhaled. Or alternatively, those “changes” do not exist at all and are only imagined by Bella or Alice.
Geraldine and I found that the biggest challenge when writing the script was to create those moments that retain an ambiguity in order for the audience to always have the possibility of finding an answer.
We have worked on a similar dramaturgical challenge before. With LOURDES, the existence – or not – of a miracle needed to convince, and it convinced both the Vatican as well as the Union of Rationalist Atheists – who both awarded the film with their prizes in Venice…
A MOTHER’S LOVE
In fairy-tales and stories, and also in the present day, we perceive the mother as inseparably linked with her child in some invisible way. In the best scenario, this bond is a loving one, but in any case it cannot be broken, and it forms the basis for the unquestionable responsibility of a mother for her child. Every working mother is familiar with being asked the question (which is often laden with accusation): “So, who looks after your child when you go to work?”
LITTLE JOE is about a mother who is tormented by her bad conscience when she goes to work and ‘neglects’ her child. A mother whose feelings are ambivalent, because the plant is Alice’s other child: her work, her creation, the product of her labor. And she doesn’t want to neglect this child either or lose it. But which of her children will Alice choose in the end?
Both of the female main characters, Alice as well as Bella, seem to be psychologically instable. Alice regularly attends psychotherapy, where her bad conscience towards her son, her being a workaholic and her secret fears are being discussed.
We learn that what seems to be a threat upon Alice’s career (her plant possibly changes the people who come in contact with it and thus alienates them from their loved ones) could as well be interpreted as Alice’s most secret wish coming true: to free herself from the bond with her child. To be able to focus on her own desires and interests. To have a bit more time for herself. A wish that she shouldn’t blame herself for. And when she finally achieves that freedom- the film comes to a happy end.
Alice has created two beings who gradually move away from her control: Joe and Little Joe. The plant appears to have a life of its own: it emits pollen according to its own criteria, though we don’t know whether this is by chance or conscious intention. Is Little Joe attempting to overcome its infertility, which Alice engineered? Is it securing its survival by infecting people and robbing them of their feelings? So that those who have been infected will now serve Little Joe? That theory sounds fantastical, and initially Alice laughs at it – but not for long.
Today, we are confronted with living beings which are products of genetic engineering and we cannot really know for certain what kind of danger they may conceal. Perhaps none at all… but we can’t be sure. One body of opinion insists that to be on the safe side we should protect ourselves from this eventuality, while another claims that everything is under control. Without taking sides here, I’m interested in this aspect of our time, which is determined on the one hand by scientific developments and on the other by semi-truths that are spread on the internet. And by the uncanny realization that even scientists can only surmise, without knowing for certain. It is fertile soil for all manner of conspiracy theories.
It seems to me that the film’s aesthetic is even more abstract or artificial in LITTLE JOE than in my earlier films. AMOUR FOU was perhaps a stepping stone because with a historical setting, you are already entering a fantasy world. None of us were there, we only have pictures to refer to, which are already another artist’s impression. It’s already a kind of invented world that you are designing.
With LITTLE JOE I had the feeling that this would go even further. Obviously, we were inspired by green- houses, laboratories, real places, but in the end, we were trying to create a kind of artificial world. We wanted to reflect the fairy-tale nature of the story. For example, with the colors, there is the mint green and white, and then the red of the flower.
We chose these almost childish colors to give the film the characteristics of a fairy-tale or fable. Also, Alice’s red hair for example, that is a very important point, almost iconographical – this bright red mushroom hairstyle that she has.
For the costumes, the collaboration with my sister, Tanja Hausner, started a long time ago, we’ve worked together on every single one of my films. Together, we developed a certain style. On the basis of Tanja’s costumes, you can’t easily pinpoint when the film is set . The costume design focuses on creating a real- ity of its own, iconic key pieces such as pearl earrings and a red hat are repeat- edly used, the colors are obviously styled corresponding to the set design. And there is humor in the costumes: a ridiculous dress, a suit too large…
The same holds true for the cinematography. I have the feeling that the longer Martin Gschlacht and I work together, the more we both feel like expanding boundaries, the limits of realism. That’s something we are both very interested in: through the aesthetics but also through the framing. Our framing tries to question reality as we play with different perspectives – what the viewer does and does not see; we maintain a level of uncertainty with what is kept hidden. As an audience you real- ize that you have only been shown a fragment. And one begins to ask oneself what is behind it, what is wrong, what is happening where I can’t see? Our framing and our narrative emphasize this question: what do we not see? What is hidden offscreen?
For example, when Bella says, “I think it’s Little Joe’s pollen, that trig- gered something”, the camera approaches her, but then the camera is panning past her and there is a slight disappointment or a questioning of her authority, as if she’s not the person who can provide the answer for us, and what she’s just said might not be true…
This is my first English-language film and it is surprising to me how wonderful it felt to work in English. I feel that certain things can be expressed unsentimentally in English, which in German might sound complicated or ridiculous.
I enjoy shooting in a language other than my native one, because it really allows me to focus. When directing, I think it’s crucial not to get too comfortable and not to get caught up in any detail. You need to have an unimpaired view of a scene to judge if it’s working or not. The foreign language helps me to keep that distance.