It’s ‘Day of the Triffids’ for today’s Britain, but with antidepressants as the monster

An award-winning science-fiction thriller billed by critics as a modern Day of the Triffids takes a provocative approach to Britain’s growing dependence on mood-lifting chemicals and antidepressants.

Little Joe, released in UK cinemas in February, and starring Ben Whishaw, Emily Beecham and Kerry Fox, has divided reviewers with its odd, disturbing story of a newly bred plant designed to spread joy.

On set in a vast greenhouse laboratory, the acclaimed Austrian director Jessica Hausner first told her actors to forget about finding “the truth” of their characters.

Little Joe looks at the question of how do you perceive whether someone has changed or not,” Hausner told the Observer. “That was the big issue when I talked to the actors. And so even when we were shooting, we were shooting different versions of each scene.”

Hausner’s thriller, her first in English, is perhaps closer to the 1956 US sci-fi film Invasion of the Body Snatchers than to John Wyndham’s triffids novel. It plays tricks with audience expectations of the genre and with public concern about the 7 million Britons – 16% of adults – who are prescribed antidepressants each year.

Hausner, 47, knew her approach was risky, but if we could be engineered into better humans, she wanted to ask, how would we tell, and would it matter? “I always have the feeling that everyone plays different roles all the time anyway,” said Hausner, director of the critically-admired Lourdes and Amour Fou.

“In films like Body Snatchers, I love those moments when a husband says ‘This is not my wife’, although she looks just the same. The audience wonders who is the crazy one. The second half of these films, with the solutions, are more boring, so I decided to stay with the puzzle. I like it when you feel there is something secret that you have to solve. As an audience member, I am mostly disappointed when I get the answer at the end. I know it is a bit of a risk, but I thought: why not give it a try?”

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The screenplay, co-written with Hausner’s regular collaborator Géraldine Bajard, revolves around the difficulty of detecting whether or not a personality has been influenced by contact with the bright red “happy plant”.

“It was clear to the actors that they should not act out any changes. We talked about ambiguity and also about the ideas that build up in your mind about other people’s behaviour,” said Hausner. “I thought I would like to have the opportunity to decide at the editing stage which level of strangeness the actors should have in their performances. I mainly chose the not-so-strange performances because it was much more interesting when the question is still in our heads. That is the fun of it.”

The tone of Little Joe, which takes its title from the name given to the plant’s prototype, also owes much to the heightened, comic-book look of the musical film Little Shop of Horrors, Hausner admits. “We looked at the film with our designer, Katharina Wöppermann, because I did not want it to be a deadly serious sci-fi thriller.”

Hausner’s sister, Tanja, chose the costumes with similar comic intent. British actress Beecham, who plays the lead role of Alice, a scientist and plant breeder, is dressed throughout in 1970s-inspired outfits.

Beecham, who starred in the British film Daphne and appeared in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, won the best actress award at the Cannes film festival this spring for her role in Little Joe.

In Cannes a critic dubbed the film “anti-horror”, but in America, where Little Joe has just been released, reviews have been mixed, with some unsure of Hausner’s intent. The Washington Post, however, said the Austrian had given the allegorical arthouse horror film “a stylish, nuanced and deeply unsettling airing”, while Rolling Stone praised Beecham’s “coolly magnetic” performance.

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