Whither David Fincher? Make room, Paul Thomas Anderson? There’s a (somewhat) new filmmaker on the world stage, Austrian writer/director Jessica Hausner, drawing comparisons to Stanley Kubrick. Her latest film, Little Joe, might be tough to categorize as it incorporates elements from genres like sci-fi and horror while also maintaining an auteurist stamp. But one thing that’s never in doubt is her command of the medium and her control of the story.
The plot itself may sound familiar: a working single mother, Emily Beecham’s Alice, feels torn between duties to her teenage son and her laboratory work. As a plant breeder, she’s on the cusp of a breakthrough on engineering a plant that can chemically induce happiness in its owner. However, her creation might be altering people in a more insidious and imperceptible way à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Where the film really excels is in her execution, which is both impressive and eerie in its remarkable precision.
Upon the occasion of a career retrospective at New York’s Film at Lincoln Center, I sat down with Hausner to discuss her exacting visuals and methodical approach to filmmaking.
Little Joe has elements of sci-fi, horror, thriller, fairy tale, parable. Is there any one thing or way you’d describe the movie as? Or is the fluidity of genre the point?
I would say there is a large part of genre film in it. The other genres you mentioned are maybe the other half. You could also say it is half genre film and half auteur film.
You’ve mentioned that you’re fascinated by “the fact that science doesn’t provide absolute truth,” which I think is a good point to raise given that scientific principles are still subject to the limitations of the human mind. Even things that we think of as settled science like gravity have changed over centuries. Is this something you think we should be considering outside the realm of genetic modification?
Absolutely. I think in all different times of humankind, the truth has always changed. It’s not only the scientific truth that has changed. The ideology of what we think is right and wrong has changed. For example, I made a film before Little Joe called Amour Fou, and it takes place in 1811 Germany. Back then, people thought democracy was not a very good idea and monarchy was providing much more stability and reason to political decisions. Now we live in a time where we think democracy is the best version we know, and monarchy is merely some dictatorship.
Our perception of right and wrong has also changed in terms of how women are represented in society. It has changed a lot … it should change more, but it has changed throughout the years. For example, my mother when she was young had to ask permission of my father to sign her working contract, which was normal back then. From my perspective already, and it’s only 30 years later, that sounds crazy!
You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you wanted Little Joe to take place apart from any given time period. Is that so we can evaluate these things without 2019 looming over it?
I would suggest that because Little Joe is also talking about very basic human conditions that might have been the same 500 years ago, which is what you mentioned. In general, most scientists try to do positive things, but they can never be 100% sure of the outcome of what they’re doing. This has always been the case, and it will always be the case.
The other idea of the story, that a mother is questioning her relationship to her own child, I think this is also something basic but taboo. I have the impression this is something that has not been talked about very much, or in a way that I can relate to. I think we still have a perception of motherhood is still simple and old-fashioned. I wanted to give another perspective on this mother who is also a dedicated scientist.
I surveyed a wide array of global films from female directors at TIFF this year, and I found that many of them were pushing against this binary idea of good or bad mothers with no grey area in between. There’s no room for them to say, “I love my child, but…”
I think so too. I don’t know so much about America, but I can say that in Europe, this is the case. You’re very much exposed being a mother to the judgment of everyone; [they’re] all allowed to judge if some woman is a good or bad mother. I find that very strange, but it’s something I have the impression is not changing very much. My film is also trying to make a point for women because women blame themselves for not being a good enough mother if they focus on their work. If you want, this is the backside of feminism. You can say, “men are suppressing women,” but on the other hand, you can say, “women are not fighting for their rights enough.” I think that other perspective has got to do with the fact that they think they have to be perfect as mothers. They always prefer the choice of their child [over] the choice for their work, and I’m trying to question that. I’m saying, “Why don’t you let this child live with the father and focus on your scientific work?”
Professor Ramesh Srinivasan has noted that all technology bears the biases of its creators. Is that true of Alice and the plant?
I don’t know if she has that bias, but the storytelling is set up like that. The telling of the story is reflecting on the fact that Alice is the mother of two children. She creates a son, and she creates a flower. This is meant to be an echo, Little Joe and Joe. Also, to make it very precise, the fact that she is torn between the two important aspects of her life.
It can’t be a coincidence that the flower Little Joe is red like Alice’s hair, right?
No, I thought the red color is very archaic for a flower. It’s the color of love when it’s a flower – or danger. I liked to have the flower red, but it was only later that I met Emily Beecham and found out the color of her hair would be very good with the color of the flower.
You’ve talked about liking artificiality in your films. How do you execute that without going too far and making something that feels mechanical or non-human?
It is a tough balance. It depends on the actors. My style of directing is rigid and styled; it’s like a choreography. It’s all planned. I do little drawings, and the cinematography is designed in advance. There is not very much coincidence on set. It is very important that I find actors that stay alive within that whole ballet, and I was very lucky to work with Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kerry Fox and the others.
What I do when I work with them is to focus on the double meaning of something that is being said. When we work on the dialogue, this is what we’re doing. This is what they say, but we talk about what is behind that. Are they hiding some other feelings or thoughts, and that’s why they say that? Not because it’s true, but because it’s a lie? This is great fun when we do the scenes, and I think the actors enjoy it. It makes you laugh because you understand that all of us are mostly lying.
So is the subtext where your actors find their freedom?
Maybe that is also what helps them to stay alive.
Your tracking shots in the film fascinated me. There’s often a slow push in towards the characters in the frame, and then the camera moves past them entirely. How did you and DP Martin Gschlacht concoct these shots, and what do you hope an audience feels watching them?
I’m working with the same DP on all my films, Martin Gschlacht. He said the other day when he works with me, that’s the special thing compared to his other directors: working with me he has these camera movements where the camera is a character of its own. The camera does not necessarily follow the actors’ acting or rhythm. The camera follows its own rhythm and movement. He said to me that he needs 1-2 days to change his pattern [from other directors’ style], but then he’s in it again!
We do design this in advance. When I draw the storyboard, I already draw that. You have that shot of two people talking to each other, and as the camera approaches them, it goes behind them and focuses on the curtain. I [said] to the production designer, “We need a curtain, and I want the curtain to be violet because then the camera focuses on that curtain.”
You asked about what the audience should feel. It’s about creating a world of insecurities. It’s not a stable world. It’s not coherent. We have the feeling we have missed something. I think this is what I’m trying to say: I don’t provide you on the final answers on life, I just show reality like a puzzle where some pieces are missing.
(The rest of the conversation delves into some spoilers. Bookmark this page and come back when you’ve seen the film!)
A line in the film that really seems to sum up Little Joe is towards the end, when the plant is affecting everyone in a kind of Body Snatchers-esque way, is Karl (David Wilmot) saying: “Who can prove the authenticity of feelings — who cares?”
That’s my favorite sentence!
Well, if this even matters … do you care?
[pauses] No, I don’t. Or maybe I do. I don’t know if I can tell you!
I do think I’m aware of the fact that a lot of feelings we show are not authentic. I think this is the interesting question, that you know everyone – even your closest partner in life – is not precisely the person he or she shows to you. We all show versions of ourselves that are a bit more beautiful, maybe, than what we really think. Everyone knows, for example, you might think something you would never say to the person you talk to. Why would you? If you would tell the person, maybe it’s mean and doesn’t improve life. What I mean when I say I don’t care is that I don’t judge. I think it’s ok that we pretend all the time because it makes it possible that we live and work together.
That’s something I found interesting about the end of the movie. Maybe they’ve been brainwashed by this plant, but they’re happy. And if they’re happy, who are we to judge them?
Absolutely, I totally agree! And I’m so astonished, audiences or journalists ask me, “Why is your film such a dark and dystopian look into the future?” I say, “It’s not! It’s actually quite friendly.”
I was watching the Cannes press conference where one of the actors said he asked you if he was infected, to which you replied, “You don’t know!” Were you encouraging them to play it with uncertainty and ambiguity, not making up their minds and letting the audience figure it out?
This young actor who said that, in his scenes also, it is very much about the fact that he’s pretending anyways. He’s pretending like everyone pretends. He’s asking Alice if the results of the test were OK and if she has other questions, but he asks this in a way where we feel he has a second thought. What is this second thought? If you see it from a psychological perspective, he’s afraid that she’ll find a mistake in what he did. If you see it from the sci-fi perspective, the plant has changed him, and the second thought is already how can we influence Alice. But it doesn’t make any difference for me as a spectator. I don’t tell him if he’s been changed or not. I focus on directing the actor in a way that any way [the audience interprets it], we feel he has a second thought and is somehow pretending.
The song in the closing credits sends audiences on a fitting note as a raspy voice booms “happiness, business.” Are you framing these two things as a choice? Interdependent? What’s the relationship?
This very last song gives a certain interpretation because it’s opposites, happiness and business. I left this to the composer of the song. I told him to please compose a happy song, and this is what he came up with. It’s his interpretation of the film and his perspective. I thought it’s interesting. It may be specific, but to some audiences, it’s ok to give them this interpretation to know how to read the film a little bit better. From my perspective, I think this is only one aspect. The fact that we make a business out of happiness nowadays, but it is an interesting aspect.
You’re here at Lincoln Center for a career retrospective, and while I haven’t seen some of your earliest films, it feels safe to say that Little Joe is the most overt embrace of genre in your body of work. Do you consider the film as an extension of what you’ve already been doing in your career or a new chapter altogether?
I made one film 15 years ago called Hotel, my first attempt to play around with genre films. It’s a mystery film about a girl in a hotel that’s gone missing, and the girl who takes over her job is afraid that she might be kidnapped as well. It’s a crazy idea she has; it’s not really based on facts. It’s based on rumor. This film is very much already a version of Little Joe. In all my films, I try to reflect on those ideas in our heads that are as strong as reality. So, if you want, Little Joe is an elaboration on that first attempt to make a genre film. It’s a genre version of an auteur’s film. Or an auteur version of a genre film. As you like!
Little Joe is now playing in select theaters.
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