It is widely assumed that the claims of psychopharmacology have trumped psychoanalysis; regulating mood and brain chemistry is simpler than the messy, plodding work of rummaging around in the unconscious meanings of our thoughts and desires. Accordingly, the psychological thriller genre should give way to the psychopharmacological thriller — a subgenre of science fiction, in which chemistry and neuroscience upend character. In her 2019 film Little Joe, Viennese director Jessica Hausner calls this bluff. She offers what appears to be a light-SF psychopharmacological thriller, only to throw us back to more disturbing, pre-medicated uncertainties about our own unconscious motivations and primal drives.
Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham), an up-and-coming biotech scientist and divorced mother to Joe (Kit Connor), has developed a plant she names “Little Joe,” whose scent improves people’s mood but also triggers a series of changes in those around her. Her colleagues are curious. Bella, a recently demoted colleague with a history of mental instability, finds the plant sinister. Her emotional support dog, Bello, becomes aggressive and has to be put down. Chris (Ben Whishaw) finds courage to act on his attraction to Alice. Karl (David Wilmot) dismisses Alice’s reservations about the plant’s possible genetic mutations — including reproduction.
Alice doesn’t quite know what to think. Beecham’s performance of her modest, even-tempered ambivalence is subtle and captivating. She wants Little Joe to succeed, but is bothered by reports of its mysterious effects. Karl and Chris seem complicit in Bella’s eventual demise, and Chris assaults Alice when she threatens to destroy all the Little Joes in the greenhouse. Most disturbing for Alice are the changes in her son after she brings home a Little Joe for him. He becomes moody and distant, growing closer to his girlfriend, Selma (Jessie-Mae Alonzo), and his cottage-dwelling father, Ivan (Sebastian Hülk). Joe moves in with Ivan, and Alice reconciles herself to Little Joe’s medical and commercial triumph, with orders of Little Joes for schools and hospitals across the UK.
In fact, the plant “Little Joe” already exists, as a variety of Joe Pye Weed, a common-looking North American herbaceous perennial with tiny mauve flowers, which is “patented and will not grow from seed.” Its Latin name, Eutrochium dubium, roughly means “dubious wheel.” Hausner’s plant appears very different, wearing its infertile dubiousness more vibrantly: no leaves, just a sturdy stalk with a single bud which, fully blossomed, resembles a Dr Seuss-like sea-urchin pompom of bright red tendrils. It is like Alice herself (falling down Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole, perhaps) has been inverted, with her own red hair sticking straight out. Indeed, Little Joe represents both the inversion and continuity of her life. Her own Little Joe turns her world upside down, while nevertheless reflecting her own unexpressed desires: for relief from the duties of parenting so she can focus more on her career, for her denial of her son’s moody pubescence as a reflection of her own shortcomings, for her desire for success despite her apprehension about what she’s created.
The changes in Bello and Joe both solicit disbelief, with Little Joe serving as scapegoat for both of their transgressions. If parents eventually grudgingly accept that their children’s personalities may change for reasons they will never understand, pet owners almost never accept that their pets might have a similarly mysterious or hurtful change of heart. Bello’s bad temper after being (accidentally? deliberately?) locked in the greenhouse by Bella’s colleagues can’t possibly be his resentment of Bella’s ineptitude. An emotional support dog must never tire of its owner’s personality, even if clingy and ridiculous like Bella. Indeed, the loyalty attributed to dogs can be seen as a compensation for the inevitable disloyalty of children. Both children and dogs are scolded for being moody; no pet-owner or parent wants to imagine that the tiny feet they heard go pitter-pat may be justifiably eager to trot away from them.
In naming the plant “Little Joe,” human Joe is implicitly older, with implications for his relationship with his new girlfriend, the ethnically ambiguous Selma (a name meaning “peaceful” or “beautiful view”). The couple sneaks into the laboratory one night, using Alice’s ill-conceived password, “LITTLE JOE.” How else to read this than Joe entering the world of adult sexuality — ironically, his mother’s fertile laboratory — when she isn’t conscious? His theft of his mother’s keycard while she is asleep is threateningly erotic, but resolved by the rendezvous with Selma — his Oedipal complex progressing in a happily normative way, with only minor trespassing. There can be no doubt that Jessica Hausner, daughter of artist Rudolf Hausner, called “the first truly psychoanalytical painter,” has deliberately left us this trail of interpretive breadcrumbs to follow.
Comparisons of Little Joe with the Pod People of Invasion of the Body Snatchers are obvious, but they overshoot the mark. While the Pod People in Body Snatchers are replicas of their imperfect predecessors, Little Joe’s inhalers are the exact same people. This simultaneous continuity and change presents us with a much harder problem than invasion or artificiality. On the one hand, it’s hard to tell who our “real” selves are, given the vagaries of our environment. Wouldn’t I have performed better on that test with better lighting and a more appropriate temperature? If my mother weren’t so emotionally absent, wouldn’t I be more capable of intimacy now? The most tempting idea is that the right environment would make us more like ourselves and intensify our own goodness, kindness, creativity.
On the other hand, what is the point of mood-stabilizing drugs (or even therapy), if we weren’t made different from what we would otherwise be? The absence of material, noticeable differences from our previous selves would a sign of their failure. In this sense, even a placebo effect is real. As Karl notes, cynically but insightfully, “Who can prove the genuineness of any feelings?” Rather than science fiction, such uncertainty is a long-known fact.
This ambiguity points to a different set of counterparts to Little Joe than Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray comes to mind, where Dorian — like everyone in Little Joe — finds himself under the influence of other personalities, other substances, other artworks, other experiences. In the magical painting that drives that novel, Dorian has a perfectly accurate image of who is really is, after all these influences affect him. This inability to lie to himself makes his life unlivable; Dorian is deprived of the consolations of moral vanity that others take for granted. In Little Joe, the plant itself becomes the device onto which characters can project their best or worst selves.
What unites both works is a keen awareness of the effects of the senses on the mind. In investigating the powers of perfumes, Dorian
saw that there was no mood of the mind that had not its counterpart in the sensuous life, and set himself to discover their true relations, wondering what there was in frankincense that made one mystical, and in ambergris that stirred one’s passions, and in violets that woke the memory of dead romances, and in musk that troubled the brain, and in champak that stained the imagination.
Dorian never quite solves this puzzle, but instead remains in thrall to it. Perhaps this is why scent is the most disturbing sense for a mood-altering drug to use: it is impossible to smell something without also ingesting it, taking it inside oneself. Influence is literally an inward flow, and the ambient scent of a flower is not easy to measure or control. Little Joe demands of those who smell him this kind of elusive, fleeting intimacy, which leaves you different, but also the same.
Robert Carson is on the faculty of the Liberal Arts Department of the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University. His recent essay, “Susan Sontag: Race, Class, and the Limits of Style” (with Hollis Robbins), appeared in The American Interest.