Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 01, 2019 6:24 pm 
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Though not fun watches, the Austrian director Jessica Hausner's last two features inspired admiration. They are different. Lourdes? (2009) starring the reedy, intense French actress Sylvie Testud , backed by the sexy Léa Seydoux and, Bruno Todeschini, coldly, without drama, unfolds an actual, or apparent, miracle, the spontaneous cure or the protagonist's paralysis. Amour Fou (2014) goes back to the 19th century to depict the mostly true story of how an important figure of German romanticism, Heinrich von Kleist, persuades a young woman to participate in joint suicide. Both are chilly, precise films; Amour Fou in addition is beautiful.

Little Joe, which is Hausner's first English language picture, seems to me a misstep, even though early Cronenberg, Kubrick and even Haneke have been mentioned, all a bit outsized for Hausner's little piece of ivory. This is a foray into the world of sci-fi horror, but a sui generis one sapped of energy, its thrills and chills barely perceptible. Hausner is (except for one or two jolts) not looking for powerful shocks. The focus is a suite of greenhouses where a handful of genetic botanists - only, in a feeble irony (since they're not very sexy), they're called "breeders" - seem primarily at work on the development of a peculiar genetically modified flowering plant that its initiator, Alice (Emily Beecham) has given the titular name, after her young son Joe.

This plant has one stalk and one bright red bloom which, when flourishing, spreads like an exploding sea anemone. It's designed to have a symbiotic rapport with its human caretaker: to respond to loving care, watering, nurturing, kind words, by exuding an orgasmic hormone that will make the person attending happy. Perhaps there is mutual happiness. If this is a step beyond what is appropriate for inter-species relations, it may not surprise you that things go awry. Joe, whom Alice has broken the rules to supply with his own "Little Joe" plant to care for, begins behaving strangely. So does Bello, the adored canine pet of an already psychologically troubled older team member (Kerry Fox). It might be said that Ben Whishaw's character, Chris, never acts normal to begin with, adopting a creepy, excessively gentle manner from the start.

This is a coldly beautiful film. The color is both washed out - to evoke a sterile environment - and bright - highlights of turquoise, orange, red, blue pop ourt in every scene. The aesthetics are overbearing for a genre movie. Though this makes people think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, though, this film never comes to a climax or provides genre satisfactions.

What is this film about? Some reviewers harp on its seeming allegory opposing antidepressants. The Little Joes are devices to make you happy. That effect turns out to be artificial and unnatural. The altered people are not themselves. If this is the message, it's obviously a gross oversimplification, and people treated with antidepressants would obviously rather be a little less themselves, if necessary, to avoid being utterly miserable. Sometimes the emphasis seems to be on the uncomfortable hothouse dynamics among the staff. This isn't a very interesting film. Despite its beautiful set design and some skillful programming of the plant and greenhouse sequences, there ultimately seems really too little happening between the plants and humans. The whole conception is a bit too static. Little Joe doesn't seem really appropriate to Jessica Hausner's talents.

Little Joe, 105 mins., debuted at Cannes in Competition, where Emily Beecham won the Best Actress award; it was included in 14 other festivals and its US release date is Dec. 6. 2019. Metascore 57%,

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