Review: Little Joe

Final screening today (Mon 9th March) 6pm at Leeds University Union.

Little Joe

Jessica Hausner’s chilling psychological thriller is visually masterful however lacks a storyline worthy of it. The dizzying camera shots combined with the ominous and unnerving score creates an element of paranoia from the outset. The colours which are at points quite Wes Anderson esque can beautifully slip into the shadowy under belly of Blade Runner (1982).

The film centres on Alice who is a single mum and a dedicated breeder at a corporation which genetically engineers plants. She is working on developing a new breed that will control human emotions. Against company policy, she takes one home as a gift for her teenage son and names it after him but soon, though, she starts to fear it. Films and literature throughout history have dealt with the raw unspoilt beauty of flowers and the untold secrets they might hold. Little Joe carries on this tradition. Although the immortal words “Life will find a way” did pop into my head a few times, the film manages to offer up enough which feels different. The theme of mental health, maybe not fully realised, raises some interesting ideas on the subject and the stigma surrounding it. It is also about relationships, which feels more fleshed out but still perhaps not fully explored.Jessica Hausner’s eastern European routes and filmmaking style are at odds with the English setting, leaving the viewer with the impression of a tourist eye view of Britain.

The acting which was sometimes deliciously creepy and understated, sometimes fell into mockery and felt quite wooden. The saving grace in regards to the acting was Ben Whishaw who was the stand out performance.

Sam Judd

One thought on “Review: Little Joe

  1. For me, Little Joe is a retro-science fiction masterpiece, a perfect example of film making with confident, rigorous control of every detail for a subtly powerful psychologically-unnerving effect. It has one of the most brilliantly avant-garde soundtracks I’ve ever heard, and I was pretty much in a state of ecstatic flow for the duration.

    The premise is imaginative and chilling. In terms of genre we’re looking at Frankenstein-like scientists meddling with forces they don’t understand, we’ve got Invasion of the Body Snatchers personality-change terror, there’s plants that could take over the world like in Day of the Triffids (with a dash of Little Shop of Horrors), there’s the more subtle everyday horror of a mother seeing her pubescent child turning into a person she doesn’t recognise, and the zeitgeisty anxiousness of a woman who can’t be sure whether she is being gaslighted (gaslit?) or is genuinely losing it. A recurrent theme is that certain characters are not the same as they used to be but, absurdly or terrifyingly depending on your point of view, they play the person they were before to perfection. And then, if you wanted, you could read this movie about a plant designed to make people happy as a satire of producers of chemical mood enhancers such as anti-depressants causing sinister changes in users’ personalities – producers who allow commercial factors to override safety considerations. A mad scientist’s amalgam of genres, but it avoids landing fully in any of them. With some of the techno-chiller atmosphere of The Andromeda Strain (1969), it plays out with the sort of repressed, buttoned-up emotionality you only get in England.

    Much of the movie takes place in the alienating, claustrophobic, sterile white surroundings of plant labs under fluorescent lighting, where scientists in pastel green lab coats tend to precisely lined-up genetically-engineered plants, or have lunch in the equally sterile-looking canteen. Always the camera is creepily, systematically tracking or zooming around the surroundings, building an atmosphere of paranoia from the most innocuous details. Effective use is made of remorselessly spinning closed circuit camera footage. Several times the director uses a technique I have never seen before: a 2-shot of people talking with the camera slowly zooming in until the characters are out of frame, effectively conveying their alienation – it is unnerving to say the least. Perhaps the most striking thing about the film is the colour design which is precision-controlled to the last detail: clinical, contrasty, and washed-out all at once; always there is the sinister, intrusive presence of crimson. I found the acting is uniformly low-key, subtle and highly effective (only Jessie Mae Alonzo lets the side down slightly). The music (which, according to IMDB, is by Teiji Ito who died nearly 40 years ago?) is amazing, with high-pitched whines and burbling noises almost subliminal in the background, obscure folk instruments to accompany the puffs of pollen, and explosive bursts of percussion or recorded sounds like packs of barking dogs (like a lot of the sounds, the one of dogs is relevant, given that the first victim of the mutant flower Little Joe is the beloved pet dog of Kerry Fox’s bullied character Bella).

    I didn’t mind the predictable ending at all, it’s one of those times when anything else would have come across as a betrayal of genre conventions – it’s in the detail of how you get to that ending that the interest lies.

    In a bit of genius programming the screening was preceded by naturist and time-lapse pioneer F Percy Smith’s stunning short Birth of a Flower (1910).

    Liked by 1 person

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