Full Bloom: Horror Plants in "Little Joe" by Jessica Hausner

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Written by Patrick Holzapfel

Full Bloom is a series, written by Patrick Holzapfel and illustrated by Ivana Miloš, that reconsiders plants in cinema. Directors have given certain flowers, trees or herbs special attention for many different reasons. It’s time to give them the credit they deserve and highlight their contributions to cinema, in full bloom.

“She is putting on a smile / Living in a glass house" 
—“Life in a Glasshouse,” Radiohead

What do plants want? This question lurks at the bottom of recent shifts in thinking about vegetal life as well as fueling the popular genre of plant horror in literature and cinema. From Triffids and Killer Tomatoes to tendrils suddenly reaching for ankles in order to draw humans into the darkness, the genre has been a popular subject of awe, ridicule and countless interpretations. 

As this column is based on the assessment that we don’t pay enough attention to plants in films—related to the notion referred to as “plant blindness“ on various accounts by scholars James Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler—plant horror films, with their tendency to turn the very same observation against those ignoring the plants, are an obvious topic. Most of the plant horror films I’ve seen either deal with metaphors on political fears or the uncanny shapes of beings that are utterly foreign to us. The latter I tend to find more beautiful than frightening, the former has nothing to do with the plants themselves for they could be aliens or zombies as far as the filmmakers are concerned. 

What I really find menacing or worthy of a horror film about plants is their language. The faint sounds they make, their silence when we talk to them—impossible to permeate—and their movements we can only see after the fact. The creaking, rustling, clacking noises that could always be an illusion or a warning, a greeting or a curse. Needless to say that the horror I feel derives from my lack of understanding. If I would spend more time with a flower, I would learn to understand it better, but something keeps me from it, an ignorance I didn’t have as a child which creates a dizzy sensation whenever something grows or communicates or moves beyond my control or expectation. I have felt this horror in Jessica Hausner’s ice-cold, highly intelligent film Little Joe (2019). Close-ups of the eponymous, seductively red and purple flower create a constant Kuleshov effect throughout the film as we never know whether this special breed of flower is extracting a happiness-inducing smell with Oxytocin or is just indifferent. It’s mostly silent except for the reoccurring sizzling sound of extracting the pollen which infects people and helps the plant in its evolutionary quest to survive. Whoever inhales the pollen seems to try to protect the sterile plant and ends up changing his or her own behavior. 

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