Little Joe, Jessica Hausner’s latest feature and first appearance in Competition at the Cannes Film Festival, sounds like a relatively straightforward horror flick on paper. Science whiz Alice (Emily Beecham), stylish in a mint-colored lab coat, has outdone her colleagues at the genetic engineering greenhouse by cultivating a wholly unique plant. The brilliant scarlet hue is one thing, but what’s really special is its ability to release a pheromone that makes those nearby feel a deep sense of contentment. Water and feed it, talk to it, love it, and it’ll love you back. Alice flouts the rules by bringing a specimen home to keep her son Joe (Kit Connor) company, what with his father out of the picture and living in the country. Joe quickly takes to his chlorophyllous pet — perhaps a bit too quickly.
His normally sweet disposition starts to sour, though Alice reassures herself that it could just be normal adolescent mood-swinging. Joe grows fixated on the care of the sprout dubbed “Little Joe” and the propagation of its spores, same as Alice’s assistant Chris (Ben Whishaw) and her overseer Karl (David Wilmot). It seems that everyone taking a whiff of the puff of crimson mist these plants emit suddenly becomes very interested in their protection and spread out into the world. Genre enthusiasts can already see the body-snatchy direction in which this is all headed.
The screaming-Donald-Sutherland moment that that comparison would imply never comes, however. There’s plenty of ambient menace in the high-frequency whines of the nightmarish score, as well as the slow high-angle camera oscillations that scan the pink-lit grow chamber like a Terminator’s heads-up display. Alice gradually comes to believe that she’s trapped in a scary movie, surrounded by brainwashees determined to assimilate her. But that belief, along with the overall cinematic tone reflecting it, could be all in her head. Take a step back, and things don’t look all that sinister.
The plant doesn’t really have much in the way of adverse effects, aside from motivating its owners to diligently tend to it. It only brings out the negative side of characters previously established as untrustworthy; we see Karl as a jerk, and Chris as overly pushy in his clumsy courtship of Alice. Everyone else enjoys riding the all-natural high, feeling like the best version of a regular, unaltered self. After defending the validity and viability of Little Joe early on to her superiors, Alice comes to fret about how real the emotions caused by the plant actually are. To the people experiencing them, the difference is nonexistent.
Hausner’s big metaphor concerns antidepressants and their use, a hot-button issue demonized as cheating at life by some and championed as a salve putting the neurochemically deficient back on an even keel by others. While the spooky vibe would appear to place Hausner in the former camp, a closer look complicates that read. What might be a frightening climax at a certain vantage point in actuality results in nothing more than happiness and emotional growth.
The filmmaker errs on the side of what would be more accurately described as anti-horror, defined by a curious artistic switcheroo that gradually reveals how innocent a frightening situation truly is, as opposed to the inverse. Hausner dares us to look past the chilly cinematography and paranoia to the core of her writing, where her ideas take on a Rorschach-blot quality. All present terror originates not from the story, but from one person contained within it, and the members of the audience sharing in her limited perspective. It’s tricky, beguiling stuff, rendered with an eerie sterilized beauty. Won’t be long before Hausner’s back on the Croisette.