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Cannes 2019 Dispatch 3: Little Joe, Liberté

Emily Beecham in Little Joe

Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner made her English language debut with the UK-set project, Little Joe, taking up science fiction for the first time in her career after previously exploring horror and the period drama in Hotel (2004) and Amour fou (2014), respectively. In the film, Alice (Emily Beecham) works at a corporate biotechnology lab with a team of scientists who aim to develop new breeds of flowers that can, with their oxytocin-rich pollen, elevate people’s happiness, friendliness, and sex life—an evocative and typically rich concept for Hausner that still manages to be supplemental to her exquisitely detailed and precise mise en scene, wherein primary-colored clothing and purple-iced cakes pop against the cool Easter pastels of the immaculate green house facility. Every corner of every frame is busy yet minimalist, using patterns and repetition to, if nothing else, massage and entertain our eyes.\

The narrative takes off when Alice and her lab partner, Chris (Ben Whishaw), engineer a new flower—a fiery, magenta, dandelion-looking organism—that has generated considerable excitement and jealousy among scientists throughout the workplace. Among its alleged “abilities,” the flower is said to enhance the maternal instincts of those who come into contact with its pollen. These specimens are by all means benevolent, to the extent that Alice even decides to bring one home, where she introduces it to her young teenage son, Joe (Kit Connor). Predictably, things go awry, with people detaching from the world as a result of encountering “Little Joe”—no longer capable of experiencing genuine emotion, and dedicating their lives to ensuring the breed survives and flourishes.

As the flower’s behavioral effects deviate from the anticipated responses, Little Joe becomes both stranger and less mysterious, as a certain inevitability pervade the actions and events that result. One of the disappointing aspects of Hausner’s film is that it proceeds through this scenario—flirting with ideas of self, performance and an emotional apocalypse that would make Godard’s Alphaville (1965) blush—all in a fairly straight line. Idiosyncrasies are reserved for minor compositional quirks and odd character beats—two components of her cinema at which Hausner has always excelled. Not that this auteurist mash-up of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, -78, -93, et al) and Little Shop of Horrors (1986) needs to speak to any real world particulars, but the consequences of this narrative/movie remain a question mark to me. Perhaps the evaporation of genuine feeling no longer feels new to me; rather, by now it’s simply an understood fact of modernity. And if the stakes are gone, then blaming Brexit (as this film might) or any other contemporary social malady hardly results in vitality—a chilling notion in its own right.

Elsewhere, in the festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar, we have Albert Serra’s Liberté, an indecent, shameless/shameful art film that—honestly, who am I to say isn’t a masterpiece? Following up his most accessible film yet, The Death of Louis XiV (2016), Serra here premieres the climactic third form of his “Liberté” project — first a stage play, then a two-channel installation that, I’m told by those who’ve seen it, contains a lot of overlapping material with this filmed version — letting it all hang out for what may very well be the most radical and uncompromising thing I’ve ever communally experienced in a theater (here or anywhere else).

Which isn’t to say that Liberté is (entirely) unpleasant. In fact, despite falling in line with Serra’s now infamous brand of rigor, the film is seductively serene and, in its own abject way, quite lovely. The context and setting are simple: In 1774, a band of aristocrats flee the French courts to enjoy their libertinage, pausing during one peaceful, rainy night to engage in some no holds barred S&M, rimming and urolagnia in an unoccupied wooded area. And that, indeed, is pretty much the movie. Low on dialogue, this is a cricket-scored nocturne that often plays like a YouTube night forest sleep aid, with bigwigs pleading for another ass-lashing mixed in every now and again. It’s as amusing as it is bemusing, frequently hilarious (Serra devotees will recognize Lluís Serrat aka Sancho among the libertines, leering in on the horniness and occasionally fondling himself in the brushes), and lobbies for the future of freedom (or, if you’d rather, discharge) in the creative arts, which are always under threat of becoming more puritanical, more oppressed, more responsible. Whether you enjoy sitting through and seeing these images, which embody and represent what I can only describe as pure freedom, is, I think, a separate and far less urgent question than the one that asks, “Why isn’t everyone this committed to their own idea of greatness?”

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