Peter Strickland’s follow-up to the excellent Duke Of Burgundy is a bumpier ride, but you get to enjoy that after a while. Apparently it’s set in 1993 – I read this on the Sight and Sound letters page – but it seems to be taking place in some kind of timeless netherworld that could be the 1970’s – or, just as plausibly, the near future.
The big clunky answering machine in the home of Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) might seem to date it and later on two characters actually manage to get an interview with their bank manager: only here the bank manager is a gay couple (Julian Barratt and Steve Oram) who ask you about your dreams.
Which is to say that, although this has been sold as a horror film, there is a lot of bizarre humour here – in its latter stages it features a washing machine repairman (Leo Bill) whose diagnostic monologues can send men and women alike into an erotic reverie.
The central focus, however, is on old-fashioned department store Dentley and Soper, managed by the ghoulish Mr. Lundy (Richard Bremmer) and staffed by women in strange if formal attire uttering gnomic remarks in distressed English.
From here comes the haunted dress which seems to curse the lives of its wearers, trashing washing machines and rattling the hangers in Sheila’s wardrobe, and which seems to be the sole survivor of the conflagration which consumes the store after an altercation at the till turns into a full-scale riot.
The film is a riot, colourful and unpredictable – also political in its oblique, eccentric way. The characters talk about having ‘sleeping dreams’, as though to distinguish them from the waking dreams that their lives as consumers have become, and its two institutions – store and bank – bring together two distinct phases of capitalism, old and new.
The store represents retail’s mystical allure, the notion of exclusivity, the idea that there is some hidden secret behind the counter that you have to pay to have access to; the bank, on the other hand, promotes a more modern kind of ‘helicopter capitalism’ wherein nobody is necessarily excluded but every aspect of human relations is examined, assessed and if possible exploited – Sheila is told by her bank manager employers that her handshake isn’t ‘meaningful’ enough.
When the store burns at the end, bringing back memories of the London riots of 2011, it feels like the finish of capitalism, but at the end we see dead characters back again, and being set to work in their own private underground sweatshops, sewing more haunted dresses. Even in Hell the system persists.
Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s first venture into ‘horror’ was 1996’s Hotel, which Geoff Andrew in the Time Out Film Guide called ‘a stiff flirtation with genre’. He wasn’t entirely wrong – stiffness, however, is part of its psychology: Irene (Franziska Weizz), the young woman starting a job as a receptionist in a hotel at the edge of a dark forest is exactly that, both because of nerves (it seems to be her first job) and through an earnest attempt to fit into the new role.
This stiffness aligns her with the architecture of the hotel itself: its blandly clinical air, its formality, its shallow pockets of shadow. Contrasted with this is the forest, whose gloomy depths contain a witch’s cave, the closest thing this benighted place has to a tourist attraction.
Irene’s prickly relationship with her co-workers, and her own desires, put her at odds with the hotel management (notably when she sneaks a man in overnight and he inadvertently sets off an alarm) and in the end, seemingly unable to find a way of accommodating the two worlds, that of the hotel (society) and that of the forest (everything else) she vanishes into the dark wood.
The stiffness is back in Hausner’s latest film Little Joe, another Gothic spin on work-life balance, but more thought-through and controlled than its (nonetheless haunting) predecessor.
Emily Beecham is Alice, a biologist and single mother dividing her time between her son and her invention, both of which are called Joe. Little Joe is a genetically-engineered plant that gives off a scent that makes people happy, and it’s all ready to go viral – perhaps literally, since there is a suggestion that Joe, made to be sterile, is effectively reproducing itself by infecting the brains of people breathing in its scent.
This doesn’t turn them into zombies exactly – still less walking plants – but rather into versions of themselves that are almost impossible to distinguish from the originals, except in that they are now advocates of Little Joe, committed to its continued existence.
But is this really happening? The intentionally stilted performances create an atmosphere of pre-zombification that makes any ‘strange behaviour’ hard to identify, and the central relationship between mother and son is characterised by ambiguity – if Joe seems to be changing, growing away from his mother, is that just adolescence or the effects of Little Joe’s pollen? And is Alice’s concern over the plant’s effects just a manifestation of guilt over neglecting her child in favour of her work, as Lindsay Duncan’s therapist suggests?
Such unresolved questions contribute to the considerable tension generated by the film, which is a kind of horror film where the ‘monster’ never appears, or is there all along right in front of our noses. The monster is the plant, laid out in neat rows in industrial greenhouses, red flowers bristling and releasing clouds of narcotizing pollen. Or the monster is capitalism.
(Capitalism. There’s something almost embarrassing about writing the word – like naming the elephant in the room, and also the room. But the obvious is the hardest thing to see: it takes some weird dislocated art-horror kind of film to make you notice it, and then only out of the corner of your eye.*)
As so often in a horror film, the dog is the first victim. Alice’s colleague Bella (Kerry Fox) is convinced that her dog is no longer her dog after it has been exposed to the plant – indeed it is the only ‘convert’ whose behaviour changes noticeably: it growls at and backs away from its owner. With everyone else the alteration can be written off as increased enthusiasm for the product.
The startling Mica Levi-ish score by Teiji Ito and Markus Binder (which sometimes sounds like dogs barking) expresses the panic and rage which have mostly been banished from the placid, pretty surface. Alice’s control-freak aspect is echoed in Hausner’s tight grip on the mise en scène. Her earrings match her lab coat (Alice’s, I mean); her sessions with the therapist seem to result in a ‘cure’ – though the effects of Little Joe’s pollen might equally be responsible – but there is no messy catharsis. At the end she seems happy, ‘adjusted’ – but we may have to revise our notion of a happy ending.
At one point Alice’s (‘infected’) colleague Chris (Ben Whishaw) declares his love for her and she ignores the remark, as if it carries little emotional weight (at the start of the film Whishaw used the term ‘love’ in relation to Little Joe’s own needs).
But the lasting dread that informs this film is surely the possibility that love – maternal or romantic – is absent or irrevocably altered. It has been redirected towards the product – and the product will do its best to keep it that way.
*Talking of the elephant in the room, the emphasis on contagion, the donning of surgical masks and the ‘social distancing’ in the performances all make this film disturbingly relevant to our situation as I write. It’s hard to see the Coronavirus as a metaphor for capitalism given its current effect on the economy – but you can’t help wondering how the afterlife, assuming there is one, will shape up.