Having trouble keeping that pot plant alive? Maybe that’s not the end of the world, if this winningly strange English-language sci-fi from Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner is anything to go by. The notion of a plant that secretes personality-controlling pollen is at the heart of her cautionary tale about the perils of playing fast and loose with the natural order, and the numbing side-effects of the happiness industry. Think ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ on Baby Bio or that Garth Marenghi episode with the extra-terrestrial broccoli – only a whole lot straighter.
Emily Beecham is Alice, a genetic engineer who’s recently started working at a Monsanto-like biotech company in England called Planthouse. She spends her days in a hothouse fending off the attention of fellow scientist Chris (Ben Whishaw) and nurturing a new breed of flower that, in exchange for affection and attention, will emit oxytocin, a hormone that makes its owner happy. The sales potential is huge, and it needs to be ready in time for an upcoming flower fair, meaning corners are cut and the ramifications of designing the plant to be sterile are not properly examined. What will a plant that produces the chemical that bonds mothers and babies together do to ensure its survival? Nothing good, of course.
Hausner and co-writer Géraldine Bajard have clearly watched a lot of David Cronenberg and while the film doesn’t dip into body horror, the world of ‘Little Joe’ has the same pleasingly off-kilter feel as the Canadian’s early stuff. The dialogue has a distinct archness to it too, as if the script has been fed through a Queen's English version of Google Translate. It mostly works to enhance the eerie mood, if not the story. Alice’s exchanges with her son Joe (Kit Connor) and colleagues are formal to the point of stiffness from the get-go, so when people start falling under the numbing spell of these Franken-plants, it’s tricky to spot the difference.
The major problem is that this scenario can’t quite sustain the runtime, although it has to be noted that its jab at antidepressants feels a little glib too. But Hausner’s languorous pacing and gentle zooms have a woozily hypnotic effect and the actors mostly have fun with the film’s mannered style. Beecham, so good as the boozy wild child in ‘Daphne’, shows her range as an increasingly frazzled scientist juggling moral dilemmas and the needs of her teenage son. Probably Hausner’s best choice, though, is in using avant-garde compositions of Teiji Ito to create a jarring, skittish soundscape filled with unusual instrumentations and sinister motifs. It’s of a piece with the film. Gardening has never been so creepy.