Heaven Scent

Jessica Hausner, Little Joe, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 105 minutes. Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham.)

A TRUE “HOTHOUSE FILM,” Little Joe opens with a fluid overhead shot from a rotating surveillance camera, circling rows of genetically modified plants. They’re the creation of workaholic geneticist Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) and her team of plant breeders: a purported “happiness” flower, whose scent releases a precursor to oxytocin, the hormone that facilitates bonding between mother and child. Alice’s smitten associate Chris (Ben Whishaw) makes this artificial attachment sound warm and gushy: “What this plant really needs is love.”

The flower, which Alice names Little Joe, after her son, triggers something in its owner. Jessica Hausner’s finely modulated movie turns the question of what this affective modification represents—if anything beyond normal shifts and variables in behavior during antidepressant treatment—into a verdant maze where maternity, dread, bitterness, and Big Science intersect like cells under a microscope. Is it love, or contagious gaslighting?

Hausner’s plot unfolds in a precise, premeditated fashion—the signposts and landmarks line up like grids on a spreadsheet. Except for one great reversal about an hour into the film, where she wondrously turns a time-honored confrontation trope inside out, it stays true to classic body-snatcher form. A significant other is suddenly turned into someone or something entirely, terrifyingly other. Bellow, the beloved dog and child-substitute of the horticulturist Bella (Kerry Fox), is exposed to the bloom and turns on her. Alice gives her adolescent Joe (Kit Connor) one of the Little Joes, and soon she is seeing changes in his personality: aloof, unresponsive, keeping secrets, sneaking a girl into the greenhouse to steal a plant (thus exposing her as well).

Jessica Hausner, Little Joe, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 105 minutes. Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham.)

Bella raises the alarm (and summarily has the dog put down), but her history of mental illness doesn’t bolster her credibility. Alice, at first dismissive, soon begins fixating on her son’s increasing independence and inscrutability, perceiving Joe and his conspiratorial, stiltedly polite girlfriend to be acting like a couple of impostors. As these familiar shoes drop, Hausner keeps layering ambiguities and uncertainties: How much of this is happening in reality, and how much is in Alice’s increasingly distraught imagination, is kept in suspenseful flux. Her ostensibly sympathetic therapist (a superbly elusive Lindsay Duncan) nudges her to consider the possibility that she is projecting her own conflicted feelings, frustrations, and maternal anxieties (“the fear something would happen to Joe and I wouldn’t be there for him”). Prodding Alice to be rational about all these strange, not-right occurrences—which may just be growing pains, repressed emotions, and her own bottled-up guilt and resentment toward Joe—the doctor is the archetypal voice of reason.

Then again . . . While the therapist’s office at first seems like a perfectly neutral space, comfortably impersonal, odd details emerge over the lulling course of their sessions: the therapist’s floral-patterned chair and her bright, swirling floral-print blouses subliminally connect her office to the greenhouse. (Later in the film, the camera moves back to reveal that her second-floor office has the high ceiling of an eighteenth-century mansion, a couple of jarring paintings, and a sense of placid disjunction that is difficult to place but meshes with the overall air of concentrated ambivalence.)

Little Joe employs paradox and psychological dissonances inside the thriller form to generate intellectual suspense. This resonates in personal, curious ways; under its veneer of detachment, there’s a roiling tension that turns into subtle catalytic sparks whenever ordinary behaviors bump up against the unknown. It has a taut specificity to its action-reaction seesaw, thought it could take place in any period from the 1970s to the near future. It feels like a world without tattoos or memes, and the absence of overt, performed expressiveness or extroversion in the characters is a formal choice that takes on a life of its own—the awkwardness of Alice’s social interactions with the besotted Chris has the mildly unsettled quality of a pair of sparrows hopping around a soggy checkerboard.

Jessica Hausner, Little Joe, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 105 minutes. Karl (David Wilmot), Ric (Phénix Brossard), Alice, (Emily Beecham), and Chris (Ben Whishaw).

Hausner’s combination of suggestive elements, an unexpectedly susceptible lead character, and an aesthetic of heightened functionality gives the viewer a sense of watching the action through a probe that’s steadily worming itself into the fabric of unresolved life. That Little Joe is a species engineered to be sterile introduces yet another wrinkle: The individuals it may be infecting (or emotionally connecting to) appear to propagate it by exposing friends or colleagues to the pollen. The flower has developed its own rapid-rising evolutionary work-around to facilitate its future, turning people into mobile surrogates.

Unless the very notion of this by itself is enough to play havoc on the nerve-jangled Bella’s patched-up psyche, to turn her into a carrier whose neuroses trigger Alice. Hausner has pointed to the “uncanny” and the “crazy woman” as imaginative constructs she set out to explore here. In Bella’s case, she’s subjected to condescension and scapegoating by (mainly male) coworkers, and given to ominous, oracular pronouncements along the lines of “this plant will follow its purpose too.” Little Joe can be a very dialectical movie, putting its Tarot cards on the operating table faceup. But the deeper in you get, the more it implies there is an irreducible relation between the biological and the dialectical.

Jessica Hausner, Little Joe, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 105 minutes. Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) and Chris (Ben Whishaw).

Even after a quick, clumsily violent act, we’re brought back to the awareness that it could have been either the plant-mind protecting its own or simply an eruption of ordinary domestic violence. On the soundtrack, Hausner loudly recontextualizes pieces from a 1971 Teiji Ito ballet score: an overload of noise (crashing drums, snaking rattles, hissy strings, whinging bamboo flute) often juxtaposed to a quiescent image, such as Alice inspecting a Little Joe. A split-level consciousness permeates these moments—we’re looking at a normal person doing nothing out of the ordinary. But inside her head, there might be banshees screaming. You don’t know whether to trust your eyes or your ears.

Hausner, whose lens often pushes into the space between the actors until they disappear from the frame, generates performances that straddle a line between outwardly indefinable changes and inwardly all-consuming ones. At first, Beecham, Whishaw, and Connor seem narrowly emblematic, but the longer the film dwells on their idiosyncrasies and blank spots, the more real, and the spookier, their tendencies become. Possibly the most disturbing image in Little Joe is not that of spores floating in ultraviolet light or the frozen face of someone receiving a hug or an unconscious figure on the greenhouse floor. It’s instead that of the camera looking over the therapist’s shoulder as she carefully dictates notes to her recorder. From there on, every consecutive setup in the movie may register as a reverse angle shot.

Little Joe opens at Quad Cinema in New York and Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on December 6.