Sixty-four years later, the premise of Jack Finney’s sci-fi allegory The Body Snatchers still packs a nightmarish wallop. It’s why they keep making movies, officially and unofficially, from its blueprint: No matter the era or the symbolic function, the pod people remain a potent expression of universal anxiety—that nagging fear that those in your life have changed somehow, and maybe that you’re in danger of changing, too, and losing your whole identity along the way. Little Joe, the English-language debut of Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner, belongs to the strain of unofficial Body Snatchers spawn; it’s not an adaptation of the story but a droll art-house riff on it. Yet in its own offbeat, dryly comic, meticulously crafted way, the film comes closer than most versions to touching on the irrational dread of Finney’s original scenario.
In this case, the floral menace doesn’t come from outer space but from the sterile environs of the bioengineering industry. It’s a blood-red designer flower that gives off mood-improving pheromones if you diligently and properly tend to its needs. This “happy plant,” as the team at the English corporation Planthouse Biotechnologies calls it, is the brainchild of workaholic scientist Alice Woodward (Emily Beecham). Alice is also a single mother, and she secretly fears that her demanding job keeps her away too much from her real child, the preteen Joe (Kit Connor). Certainly, the balance of work and parenthood doesn’t leave her much time for a social life, which is one reason she politely dismisses the romantic interest of a coworker, Chris (Ben Whishaw).
One day, another employee of the company, Bella (Kerry Fox), loses her dog at the lab. When she finds him, he’s…different. “That’s not my dog,” she quickly concludes, before proposing a scary theory: What if the plant, which has been engineered to produce no seeds, has mutated to supply itself with a survival mechanism—the ability to neurologically implant in people, via puffs of pollen, a fundamental investment in its wellbeing? Alice initially dismisses the idea as outlandish. But she starts to have her own pangs of concern once Joe, who she’s gifted one of the plants, begins to behave unusually. Is he just going through normal pubescent changes? Maybe, but then how can she explain her coworkers’ general refusal to take the health risk seriously?
This is, of course, standard Body Snatchers protocol: the ominous-prelude portion, when the hero remains reluctant to accept the increasingly undeniable truth that an “invasion” is under way. But Hausner, who wrote the screenplay with Géraldine Bajard, diabolically tweaks that formula. Her trick is to put off the inevitable tilt into overt danger and realization for as long as possible, instead letting her story exist in a permanent state of liminal uncertainty. That makes Little Joe an exercise in impressively sustained paranoia that resists pivoting into the somehow safer certainty of fears confirmed. And it works because of Hausner’s lead actor, who’s probably best known for her role on the post-apocalyptic AMC series Into The Badlands. Here, rocking a haircut that looks a bit like a poisonous mushroom, Beecham modulates Alice’s emotions, expressing an internal war between fear and steadfast denial.
Ambivalence is a core tenet of Hausner’s work. Her earlier films, like the religious drama Lourdes and the period piece Amour Fou, built carefully constructed and framed dollhouse worlds around characters whose motivations and feelings remained fascinatingly un-clarified. That, of course, is a perfect approach to a story of someone trying to figure out why everyone around them suddenly seems vaguely off. Hausner’s also found a proper application for her preferred performance style: a slightly stilted, affected remove that’s like a less over-the-top version of the lobotomy-patient deadpan Yorgos Lanthimos often forces on his actors. Little Joe, in other words, never threatens to become a “normal” thriller; it’s more concerned with creating a disquieting and ever-so-slightly absurdist atmosphere, though the atonal music (mostly selections from the work of late Japanese composer Teiji Ito) does ratchet up the sense of danger. Dabbling for the first time in science fiction, Hausner provides some otherworldly visual pleasures: Contrasting hot pinks and mint greens against expanses of antiseptic white, she imagines what the Apple store might look like if Steve Jobs made his fortune on designer greenhouse creations.
As always, there’s the question of what the plants represent. That may be the real legacy of Finney’s classic: a malleable metaphor for the evils of conformism, be they political, cultural, or military-industrial. But Little Joe isn’t so easily reduced. Plenty have already read the film as a condemnation of pharmaceutical mood management. That, though, is just one parallel Hausner makes in a movie that could just as easily be about how parenthood is supposed to rewire your priorities. After all, what does “Little Joe,” as Alice affectionately dubs her Franken-flower, really offer but the bargain of reproduction, the unspoken tradeoff of “fulfillment” that supposedly comes from caring for a child? In truth, the film’s horror is as existential as it is creepily mundane. It says that we can’t ever really understand our own feelings, so maybe we should just surrender to them—to the unburdened happiness of pod life.
Note: This is an expanded version of the review The A.V. Club ran from the Cannes Film Festival.