Writer: Jessica Hausner and Géraldine Bajard
Director: Jessica Hausner
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
This low-key horror about the genetic engineering of flowers doesn’t quite come up smelling of roses, even with Ben Whishaw and Emily Beecham in the cast. A joint production between Britain and Austria, Little Joe is Jessica Hausner’s first English language film and while the camerawork is intriguing the story is silly and protracted.
Alice (Beecham) has created a new flower, the scent of which will make you happy. Sniffing the perfume of this red flower – looking rather like a miniature Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors – releases a hormone in the body that induces feelings of love. This hormone is called oxytocin and is nicknamed the ‘mother hormone’ as it replicates the love of a mother for her child. Alice has even given the flower a name, Little Joe.
There is another Joe in her life, her schoolboy son. He (Kit Connor) seems sorted even if he is a bit of a latchkey kid, waiting for his mother to come home with takeaways for dinner, as she’s a rubbish cook. One day she gives Joe a Little Joe, which is against the plant laboratory’s regulations as the flower hasn’t been fully tested for allergens, and there’s even talk of viruses being used in its production. Alice tells Joe that he should talk to Little Joe, and one day, after watering it, he gets close enough to say hello.
Back at the plant factory, some of Alice’s workers have also become strangely attached to the flower. Her assistant Chris (Whishaw) was once shy and nervous around Alice, but, after spending time with Little Joe, he’s gained confidence and stature while creepy Ric ( Phénix Brossard) has become even creepier. The only person not enamoured with Little Joe is Bella (Kerry Fox) who’s not entirely to be trusted as she once had a mental breakdown. She suspects that the flowers, which have been genetically made to be sterile, are finding new ways to reproduce. By the time her dog Bello starts acting peculiarly, Bella is convinced that something sinister is going on.
This all sounds fun, but Hausner injects too much kitsch into her film. There are odd camera angles and a close attention to colour schemes. In the canteen, fancy gateaux with lavender coloured fillings tempt the workers and hot drinks are topped with cherries. Alice’s psychoanalyst (Lindsay Duncan) wears increasingly gaudy floral shirts and trouser suits. Everyone’s acting is stylised and arch, especially that of poor Kerry Fox, who deserves better roles than this.
Added to this aesthetic is music from Japanese composer, Teiji Ito, which is layered with metallic whistling and barking dogs. Overall, Little Joe is a little too weird for its own good. Perhaps this cold, knowing style would have been more successful if the story moved quickly. Instead, the story inches forward and very little happens at all. It’s a relief when Joe’s girlfriend (Jessie Mae Alonzo) turns up, and she gets the only the laughs here.
Every good horror film should have a subtext and Little Joe is no exception. Here Hausner explores the roles of working mothers and their sense of guilt when trying to balance children and work. Alice may just love her job more than she does her son. Does the role of mother leave her cold? Certainly this film might leave you cold, but it didn’t leave the judges at Cannes cold where Beecham picked up the Best Actress for her performance. This may be the film’s biggest shock.
The BFI Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October