Cannes Film Fest 2019: Little Joe–Hausner’s Fifth Feature and First One in Competition

Inspired by such classic horror films as Frankenstein and The Stepford Wives, Austrian director Jessica Hausner was interested in making a film about the ambiguity of science.

She explains: “Humans have always made inventions, and every invention has been a threat because it was new. That’s what we do, we go one step further and we think we can improve everything, but then we find out we did not improve anything!”

The Premise

Alice, a single mother, is a devoted plant breeder at a corporation engaged in developing new species.  To that extent, she has engineered a very special crimson flower, which is remarkable not only for its beauty, but also for its therapeutic value. If kept at the ideal temperature, fed properly and spoken to regularly, this plant makes its owner happy.

Against strict company policy, Alice takes one home as a gift for Joe, her teenage son (played by Kit Connor). Together, they christened it ‘Little Joe,’ but as it grows, Alice begins to suspect that her new creations may not be as harmless as their nickname suggests.

Hausner’s fifth feature, Little Joe, is her first to screen in Competition at Cannes Fest, after three of her previous films–Amour Fou, Hotel, and Lovely Rita–were selected for Un Certain Regard. One film, Lourdes, screened at the Venice Film Fest.

Emily Beecham, co-starring with Ben Wishaw, plays a scientist who creates a genetically-engineered plant that might cause changes in other living creatures.

Little Joe is the first English-language film for the German-speaking director. “For me genre films are English-speaking films, and this film plays with genre, the psycho-thriller, the mystery thriller. In English, the sentences can be very short but still very precise, very simple and subtle.  In contrast, German is a very complicated language.”

The Uncanny

“The idea behind the story is that every individual conceals a secret which cannot be completely appreciated by an outsider or even by that individual.  Something strange inside us appears unexpectedly and makes the familiar seem uncanny.  Somebody we know suddenly seems strange.  Proximity is transformed into distance. The desire for mutual understanding, sympathy, and symbiosis is unfulfilled.

Little Joe is a parable about what is strange within ourselves. This becomes intangible in the film by means of a plant which is apparently capable of changing people.  As a result of this change, something unfamiliar emerges, and something believed to be secure is lost: the bond between two people.”

Writing with Geraldine Bajard, with whom she has worked on all her films since Lourdes, Hausner wrote most of the script first in German, apart from some English dialogue, and it was then translated into English. She embraced any sense of dislocation she may have felt from not working in her native language.

“During the shooting I tried to imagine it was not my film and I was just a spectator in the cinema and what would I think of it?” she reveals. “It helped me to find a more distant point of view.”

Hausner likes to do many takes. “Everything is choreographed very precisely, the movement of the camera, the movement of the actors, the rhythm,” she says of how she works on set.

“Everything has a strong, even slightly artificial style. We shoot a lot until everything is perfect, like a dance. What I need is actors who stay with their natural impulse as there has to be some tension, they have to hold against it. At some point you think you lose your authenticity, but at some point you gain it back and that’s the interesting point.”

Hausner produced the film through her Vienna-based Coop 99 with regular partner Philippe Bober of Germany’s Essential Filmroduktion.  They contacted a few people they knew in the UK with whom to partner. “Bertrand Faivre was among the first to answer immediately. He knew my previous films and he knew what he was buying. It was an arthouse film, not a commercial film.”

Showing a film for the first time is “like being naked,” she admits. “The first time with an audience you don’t know, it is the first moment I can see if the film works, if it’s fluent, if it’s interesting.”

She admits that she had once changed a film after its public premiere. “With Hotel we changed the ending after its premiere in Cannes festival.  It’s after that I started to work with Geraldine as I thought I have to improve my method of letting the audience in.”

About Jessica Hausner

Born in 1972, Jessica Hausner, the Austrian film director and screenwriter, received international attention in 2001 when her film Lovely Rita, a portrait of a young girl confined by family constraints, was screened in Un Certain Regard at the 2001 Cannes Film Fest.

The daughter of Viennese painter Rudolf Hausner, she is the sister of costume designer Tanja Hausner and half sister of set designer and painter Xenia Hausner. She studied at Filmacademy Vienna. In 1999, with fellow directors Barbara Albert and Antonin Svoboda and director of photography Martin Gschlacht, she founded the Viennese film production company coop99.

In 2004, she returned to Cannes Film Fest with her film Hotel.

Her film Amour Fou was selected to compete in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2014 Cannes Film Fest.

In 2016, she was a jury member of Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Fest.