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“Happiness Has Become a Kind of Ideology”: Jessica Hausner on Motherhood, Genetic Engineering, Being a Female Filmmaker and Her Sci-Fi Drama, Little Joe

Little Joe

Jessica Hausner’s unsettling and weirdly beautiful sci-fi drama Little Joe is named for the infertile red bloom that Alice (Emily Beecham), a scientist on a genetic engineering team, has developed as a supposedly harmless form of heroin: savoring its scent makes people feel happy. She has named the flower for her son (Kit Connor), and illicitly brings one home for young Joe to tend and talk to in his bedroom. What Alice supposedly doesn’t reckon with is Little Joe’s capacity for influencing whom Joe wants to live with as he approaches adolescence, herself or his father, her former partner. Or is it that Alice, who is devoted at least at much to her work as to Joe, has unconsciously planned for the flower to inspire greater kinship in him for his dad than for her, leaving her free to concentrate on her vocation unhindered by domestic and emotional demands? 

Typically, Hausner doesn’t provide any answers, but presents the film as a metaphysical and existential conundrum about the choices modern women face. Alice must not only confront her issues about parenting but negotiate her survival in a workplace where she is patronized by her boss Karl (David Wilmot), romantically pursued by a misogynistic colleague, Chris (Ben Whishaw), whose feelings she may or may not return, and worried by another colleague, Bella (Kerry Fox), who though apparently unstable is the wisest of them all. Beecham, who won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her thrillingly reticent performance, makes Alice a protagonist with whom it’s easier to empathize than sympathize.

Co-written with Géraldine Bajard, who also partnered with Hausner on Lourdes (2009) and Amour Fou (2014), Little Joe is the sixth feature directed by the Austrian auteur. Filmmaker talked at length to Hausner in early November when she was attending a season of her movies hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in Manhattan.

Filmmaker: Was Little Joe prompted by the idea of focusing on a professional woman who has ambiguous feelings about motherhood, or more by the desire to explore genetic engineering?

Jessica Hausner: The first impulse was to make a film about a woman who loves her child but also loves her work and has feelings of guilt in both directions, and anxieties that cause all the trouble of the film to happen. It is a very basic human situation. It was not clear from the beginning that she would be a scientist, but I soon began thinking about the Frankenstein story, in which a scientist creates a human being who is also a monster. I did not want to go in that direction because I want my films mostly to be open to interpretation and normally look for a kind of fairy-tale set-up. Though everything is put in a very scientific language, having this mother create a flower with a smell that is supposed to make you happy has the undertone of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. 

Filmmaker: Why did you choose genetic engineering as opposed to, say, artificial intelligence as Alice’s field?

Hausner: I never considered artificial intelligence because I immediately wanted Alice to create something that is alive. It could have been artificial intelligence now that you say it, but I think I was drawn toward the idea of a flower. Maybe that is a little bit old-fashioned. Plants have always been manipulated, but nowadays scientists have a lot of new tools for genetic engineering. What is interesting is that there are a lot of fears about it, a lot of opinion-making, a lot of lobbying for and against it. The closer I looked at it, the less I could tell if it is right or wrong. Much of it is done for the benefit of mankind, but no genetic engineer can really be one hundred per cent sure that there will not be negative consequences of his or her work. This was important to put in the film, but I am not saying, Oh, we have to be afraid of genetic engineering because it is manipulative. It is the other way around. The question is, Do the plants manipulate us in a way?

Filmmaker:  Do you think Alice’s interest in creating an infertile plant is an unconscious echo of her complicated feelings about motherhood?

Hausner: In gene technology, the plants that are invented are mostly sterile because it is a way of preventing them from propagating. It is actually a safety measure. So Chris [Ben Wishaw] is right in the film when he says they should not make a plant that is fertile, but this also reflects on how much you are bound to your child. At the beginning of the film, it is mentioned that the scent of Little Joe, the flower, contains a human hormone that provokes the feeling of motherhood, so there is a juxtaposition of Alice’s son Joe and the plant Little Joe. They are both Alice’s children and she somehow has to decide which one is most important to her.

As I have been touring [to promote] Little Joe, I have asked audiences about this issue. I don’t know what it is like in America, but in German-speaking countries the image of motherhood is still very traditional. Mothers are supposed to love their child more than anything else. And if a mother says she loves her job and her child, it is not appreciated by society. It is very different for fathers, who can say they love their job and their children. What I am trying to say in the film is that a mother has very similar feelings to a father. She does, of course, love her child, but she can also love something else in her life. We should not propagate feelings of guilt, even though Alice has them. This comes from personal experience. I have a son who is nine years old and I did feel this judgment from other people because I continued to be a filmmaker very soon after giving birth. But this did not mean that I did not take care of my son. It was, of course, possible to do both, but I had a lot of emotional travails because I got looks and comments from others who said, “Oh, I could never do what you are doing,” meaning I was doing the “wrong” thing. Being a mother, you are very much exposed. Everyone is allowed to judge a mother. Is she a good mother? Is she a bad mother? It is even more exhausting than being a filmmaker [laughs].

Filmmaker:  The idea of a plant that’s created to make people happy brings up the universal craving for contentment and joy that we seem to be finding increasingly elusive. Did you think of Little Joe as a partial allegory about dependence on psychopharmacological medications or psychotropic drugs?

Hausner: Well, I think the consequence [of such discontent] is those drugs. Among my films, Lourdes was about faith and Amour Fou was about love, and this film is promoting this strange idea of happiness. What we are always trying to do is to find some motivation to go on with our lives, and also some constructs to forget that we will die one day and maybe there is no reason to live. Faith, love, and happiness keep us motivated and alive, but I have to say that I think they are only ideas in our heads, and I’m trying to show that they are not very real. Behind that curtain there is maybe just nothing.

So we are constantly reaching out. A lot of people do not have belief anymore, which is why psychopharmacological drugs are having such a good time at the moment. Happiness has become a sort of ideology, it has become a must. If you ask someone, “How are you doing?” they rarely say, “Oh, I am so depressed because nothing is going on in my life, I don’t love my husband, my child is not what I expected it to be, and no one likes my films.” You always have to present yourself from an acceptable point of view.

Was Little Joe influenced by any of the Invasion of the Bodysnatchers films?

Hausner: Yes, it was. I never tried to pitch a remake to Warner Bros. [which is developing a new version], but if I had, I would have offered them a happy ending instead of a dystopian one. In all the versions so far [1956, 1978, 1993], everyone’s body has been replaced by a non-human. In my version, let’s say, everyone is changed or influenced by the spores and everyone has the wrong feelings, but it doesn’t matter. It’s OK.

Filmmaker:  It’s often suggested that your films are influenced by those of your countrymen Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl, and that Little Joe, in particular, is influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s films. Is that true?

Hausner: No. I am influenced by Maya Daren because I love her films so much. They create this kind of surrealist world without effects, just through production design, cinematography, and editing. It was because Teiji Ito composed music for her films that I had the idea to use his music in Little Joe.

Filmmaker:  There’s a shot in Little Joe that emphasizes how Alice is faced with male dominance. When the genetic engineering team has achieved a success, the camera first shows the head of one of her male colleagues in the foreground and then pulls back to show a line of four or five men with Alice pushed aside to the left of the frame and made to look small. It’s as if she’s being squashed and sidelined.

Hausner: Now that you’ve mentioned that, I see it, too. Maybe it’s a part of what I’m expressing, but unconsciously. My life as a female filmmaker in the industry has not been very difficult. I have  been able to go my own way, actually. But at a certain point I did have this feeling that, as a woman, you can feel quite isolated. In any situation I found myself, I was used to being opposite the men who would decide whether to give me production money or not, who would sell my film, who would run my film in their cinemas. But this has changed a little bit within the last few years. For example, in Europe there are more female heads of film funds, and I have to admit it does make a difference. I remember going to meet with Rose Garnett, the head of BBC Films, to ask for money to make Little Joe. After the conversation, we went down in the elevator with her woman assistant and Gerardine O’Flynn [head of production at The Bureau], and suddenly I smiled and said to Rose, “You know, it doesn’t happen to me very often that I’m in a room with only other women. Normally, I’m the only woman and the other three are men.” And she smiled back and said, “Yeah, doesn’t it feel good?” And I said, “Yes, it does because it gives you more self-confidence.”

Filmmaker:  Another shot shows Alice running behind an indoor window upstairs in the lab when her colleague Bella [Kerry Fox] has caused a commotion. It gives the sense that Alice, like Bella, is a little bit troubled. Is that what you intended? 

Hausner: I would say the two women echo each other. Bella is the one who is supposed to have psychological issues or it a bit deranged, whatever that means. That is what Chris says about her, but we do not know if it’s true – maybe it isn’t. Alice is this cool scientist, but suddenly she is influenced by Bella’s supposedly crazy ideas. And that’s what I like – we do influence each other and we seldom stick to one idea through our whole lives. Part of the mystery of everyone’s personality is the fact that we are constantly influenced and constantly changing. That’s why Alice is able to accept that her son has changed and wants to go live with his father. 

Filmmaker:  Emily Beecham’s portrayal of Alice is so interiorized, so enigmatic – it’s an extraordinary performance.

Hausner: She knows how to hide. I think she has that talent, which I find the most attractive quality an actor can have, of creating a tension between what she hides and what she shows. She’s not just giving you everything. There’s something hidden in her performance that makes you want to know what she’s thinking and feeling. I think it is very great the way she does this.

Filmmaker:  Alice’s look harmonizes with the look of the flowers. How designed was it?

Hausner: Very much so. The costume designer, my sister Tanja Hausner, is fully involved in the visualization of our films from the beginning. She comes up with little images, photographs, things she found somewhere. I remember she brought me a photocopy from a Vogue magazine – it showed a model with short red hair, a pink blouse, and a trench coat – that looked as if it could have come from the 1970s or from today. We always try to find a style that makes it hard to place when the film is occurring, and which is a little bit abstract. 

Filmmaker:  Martin Gschlacht photographed one of your early shorts and has since shot all six of your features. You and he have developed an expressive visual language together. The tracking shots alongside the flowers in the greenhouses in Little Joe makes them look like an army and quite threatening.

Hausner: He said the other day that, for him, the specialty of our work together is that the camera has its own life. It doesn’t follow the actors necessarily but sometimes just moves on, even if the actors have left the frame. This sort of unsettling aesthetic makes you miss what the characters are doing. We like to do this because, as a spectator, you are faced with a puzzle where some of the pieces are missing. It’s not a coherent world – it’s a world with question marks. 

Filmmaker:  Some of your compositions in Little Joe are simultaneously beautiful and scary, especially in their use of color. Over your career, your images have become increasingly precise, which is probably why you’re likened to Kubrick. Do you ever see yourself going back to a looser style that’s more reflective of emotional chaos, as was the case with Lovely Rita?

Hausner: It’s not out of the question, but I think it will always depend on the subject of the film and the feelings I have for it. I mean, I cannot get rid of myself [laughs], but, still, when I start a new film, it is like a white page and I try to come at it from a different angle. Maybe I have sometimes ended up using the same approach again, but the idea is always to develop something I have not done before. 

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