Why this might not seem so easy
Little Joe is in cinemas from 21 February 2020
Thanks to filmmakers such as Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl, we’ve come to expect from Austrian cinema a perverse delight in revealing the dark impulses underneath the veneer of civilised society. Viennese director and screenwriter Jessica Hausner certainly leans toward that tendency, but she is less interested in limit-transgressing provocation than in nudging audiences into a zone of radical uncertainty.
She has become one of the most inventive and surprising auteurs in Austria’s arthouse scene since first sparking attention at European festivals in the late 90s with her film-school short Flora (1995) and diploma film Inter-View (1999). It’s not so much what happens, but the impossibility of knowing with full confidence how to interpret it, that causes unease in her cinema. What is authentic essence and what merely social construction or self-deception when it comes to the nature of love or faith? With her, doubt reigns.
Hausner’s are female-centred films of ideas and philosophical experimentation. They seek not to console but to shake normalised assumptions about the way the world works to the core. Their impeccable look is aided by her constant collaborators: cinematographer Martin Gschlacht (with whom, along with two others, she founded production company coop99), production designer Katharina Wöppermann and costume designer Tanja Hausner (her sister).
Any air of aloofness felt from the skepticism and cerebral rigour of Hausner’s films is offset by their deliciously irreverent wit, together with the sense of radical freedom that comes from their non-judgmental curiosity, aligned with outsiders.
The best place to start – Lourdes
Lourdes (2009), made in the French language, is perhaps Hausner’s most acclaimed feature. With it, she applies her obsession with plumbing authenticity to the practice of spiritual worship. Christine (Sylvie Testud), who has severe multiple sclerosis, is visiting Lourdes in the south of France, where Roman Catholics believe a teenager saw the Virgin Mary in the 19th century. She finds the town “touristy”, but she’s not particularly religious anyway, signing up for pilgrimages as a means to travel. The nun (Léa Seydoux) that has been assigned to care for her also seems less than devoted, and is distracted flirting with a male colleague. Nevertheless, Christine’s condition improves so markedly she can rise from her wheelchair and walk. Is this a miracle? It’s hard to be sure in this droll, understated mystery.
What to watch next
More arch than tragic, 2014’s Amour fou is based on the death of 19th-century German poet Heinrich von Kleist, who shot his lover and then himself. Suffering what he calls a “deep and incurable sadness”, Kleist (Christian Friedel) asks around for a woman willing to die with him. He convinces Henriette Vogel (Birte Schoeink), the demure wife of a government official, who is in the throes of a baffling illness. While Kleist’s bloated self-regard, fickleness and theatrical melancholy are lampooned, it is Henriette that remains the elusive question mark. Meticulous tableaux capture interiors inspired by Dutch Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer, in a film that denies any glamour to the notion of ‘mad love’, even while suggesting the phenomenon might just be real.
Hausner’s forays into psychological horror mine the genre’s suspense and creeping disquiet in service to her vision of an irreducibly inexplicable universe, in which strangeness makes incursions into the safety of familiarity, and nobody can ever be known fully. In Hotel (2004), Irene (Franziska Weisz) has taken a job as a desk clerk in a remote Alpine hotel, where her predecessor disappeared. A series of odd incidents oppress her with a sense of menace, amplified by her co-workers’ hostility. Touches of David Lynch can be felt in its nighttime highways, vanishings into pitch blackness that seem like images from a dream, and, not least, its disregard for logical resolution.
Little Joe (2019), which is shot in English, asks if there is any essential integrity to our emotions, beyond the purely transactional or chemical. Emily Beecham won best actress at Cannes for her role as Alice, an ambitious plant breeder at a high-tech lab facility, and single mother to Joe (Kit Connor). She breaks safety protocols to create a genetically modified plant that’s infertile and emits a scent to make those who nurture it happy. She’s beset by guilt upon detecting uncanny changes in her son, fearing it might be the pollen, or that she is too consumed by work to be what society considers a good mother. The cinematography is bold and pristine. Rows of blazing-red, exotic flowers stir in the austere greenhouse, signalling potent forces Alice may not be able to contain.
Watch the Little Joe trailer
Where not to start
Shot on digital video with non-professionals, Hausner’s first feature Lovely Rita (2001) is more unpolished than her subsequent work, but its lo-fi rawness works to give its shock ending even more kick. Rita (Barbara Osika) is a listless, disaffected outcast among her Catholic school peers, with a rocky home life. Intent on gaining sexual experience, she makes awkward overtures to a younger male friend, before setting her sights on the bus driver in her small Austrian town. Bedroom-dancing and nightclub sequences soundtracked by Moby’s ‘Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad?’ and Italian eurodance date the film to its era. This is Hausner not yet in full command of her highly idiosyncratic voice, but already in play is her wicked humour and will to entertain unconventional female rebellion.
The mid-length Toast (2006) might best be described as a filmic essay or conceptual installation. In a kitchen of cloying pastels, a blonde woman in an embossed tracksuit (Susanne Wuest) prepares and eats toast, over and over, with an array of toppings. She sporadically leaves the room (to vomit?). With each repetition, this simple domestic act becomes more compulsive, even as any projection of interiority is deflected. Her face blank, she fills herself up, but gives nothing away to the camera. This is Hausner’s realm of absurd, contextless uncertainty, as the security of everyday acts is punctured by the arrival – psychic haunting even – of transgressive anomaly.