SCREEN DIARY: Jessica Hausner In Conversation at BFI (21 FEB 2020)

We went to see LITTLE JOE + Jessica Hausner In Conversation, opening event in our Featured Attraction of the week/month, THE CINEMA OF JESSICA HAUSNER at BFI Southbank (21 to 29 FEB). Here’s our RADIANT CIRCUS writeup.

SCREEN DIARY: Jessica Hausner In Conversation at BFI (21 FEB 2020).
SCREEN DIARY: LITTLE JOE + Jessica Hausner In Conversation at BFI Southbank (21 FEB 2020).

By RADIANT CIRCUS

Twitter @radiantcircus | Instagram @radiantcircus

We were here for the In Conversation but thoroughly enjoyed the chance to see Jessica Hausner’s latest movie, LITTLE JOE, part of the retrospective of her work at BFI (21 to 29 FEB). In his introduction, BFI’s esteemed Programmer-at-large, Geoff Andrew, outlined the venue’s long relationship with the filmmaker – many of her works have opened at the BFI London Film Festival – which led to the realisation that it was time to stage a retrospective of “one of the most interesting and distinctive filmmakers working today”.

Hausner’s introduction extended only so far as to invite the audience to stay afterwards for the Q&A as she is always very interested in hearing audience opinion: “Let’s have a conversation after the film. I hope you will enjoy. Bon appetite.” Over the course of the following discussion, the filmmaker’s relationship with audiences’ expectations and experiences is revealed as a crucial part of her work.

For the opening three minutes of the programme we weren’t watching something by Hausner, but a stunning piece of silent film capturing the beauty of flowers blooming in handcrafted colour: F Percy Smith’s 1910 time lapse wonder, THE BIRTH OF A FLOWER. Eery, captivating and a great hook into some of the visual themes of Hausner’s latest. And then it was time for LITTLE JOE.

SCREEN DIARY: LITTLE JOE + Jessica Hausner In Conversation at BFI Southbank (21 FEB 2020).
SCREEN DIARY: LITTLE JOE + Jessica Hausner In Conversation at BFI Southbank (21 FEB 2020).

After the film, Jesica Hausner took to the stage for about 50 minutes of conversation with Geoff Andrew and the audience. The discussion focused heavily on LITTLE JOE (obviously) as well as the creative origins for Hausner’s other feature films, driven by clips from LOVELY RITA (her feature debut, 2001), LOURDES (2009) and AMOUR FOU (2014). For completeness, her other feature showing at BFI is HOTEL (2004) along with shorts FLORA (1995) and INTER-VIEW (1999), and video installation TOAST (2006).

Starting with LITTLE JOE, Andrew opened things up by asking about the themes at the heart of her newest work: “This film deals with so many things… the politics of the workplace… parenthood… family relationships…” Hausner’s reply swerves such everyday specifics, reaching for something more generic and otherworldly (which is handy given that LITTLE JOE swirls with so many science fiction references, both botanical and psychological):

“The beginning of this story was that I am a very big fan of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS… you have those wonderful, funny scenes where someone says ‘Oh, my Uncle Ira is not Uncle Ira any more, he must have been kidnapped or replaced, and someone is just an imposter’… and then you see that Uncle Ira is a perfectly normal man, you cannot judge if that person is himself or not”.

For Hausner, this duality of possible realities speaks to something (funny!) at the heart of the human condition: “I always have to laugh in those moments but it’s a highly philosophical humour in there… we cannot know what the other person is really thinking or feeling. What is the reality or authenticity of a person? When are we really true and when do we pretend?”

If you’ve seen LITTLE JOE, you’ll know that this ambiguity is central to its many pleasures, where everyone comes to question the authenticity of every other person. Are the newly developed plants warping people’s minds, or has a collective paranoia broken out in the lab? Like the experimentation we see on screen, Hausner speaks of multiple screen tests undertaken for the film where the pendulum of audience opinion swung dramatically between different edits.

“There was one version of the film where a lot of people said ‘Ja, I believe the plant is changing people.’ I was disappointed, let’s go back to editing. Then in the next version, they all said ’nothing has happened, it’s just an illusion, they’re all crazy.’ No, that’s not the film, let’s go back to editing.”

Arriving at a near 50/50 split of opinion between those who felt it was the plant and those who felt it was a “psychological thing”, locked the film in: “Ok, that’s where we are, That’s the idea of the film”. Taking up this theme of deliberate ambiguity, Andrew points out that Hausner’s film ends up in a different place to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS: “You have sort of made a slightly creepy, slightly horrific sci-fi film, but at the same time you haven’t because it could be like our lives….” Clearly warming to this routine, Hausner replies merely with “Yes, I like that description” prompting a crest-fallen “Oh dear, that was meant to be a question…” from Andrew and appreciative laughter from the audience.

HOTEL, part of THE CINEMA OF JESSICA HAUSNER at BFI (22 & 24 FEB).
SCREEN DIARY: HOTEL, part of THE CINEMA OF JESSICA HAUSNER at BFI Southbank (21 to 29 FEB 2020).

Throughout the conversation, Hausner reveals more about her cinema of ambiguity and ambivalence. We see clips where the camera roams to conceal onscreen actions, climaxes are literally crowded out, and onscreen characters witness something that the audience never will. In a later anecdote about her ‘kind of’ horror film HOTEL, she tells of an audience member who was really angry with her after a screening because: “Your films is like I was watching a football match, the finals of the world championships, and in the final three minutes my TV breaks down and I can’t watch the end.” As with Andrew’s earlier summary of what LITTLE JOE both is and isn’t, she took this one in her stride: “I said ‘Thank you, that’s a compliment.’ That’s exactly what I’m trying to say. The important bit is missing… one and one is not two.”

For Hausner, ‘genre’ – be it science fiction, teen angst, horror or costume drama – has become a very practical set of tools that have their own voice. She enjoys using them “only to a certain degree” so that she is then able to “deny what they want to say”. By both observing and breaking these rules she can communicate directly with the audience about the “sentences we have in our head”. By routinely confounding genre cinema’s pre-scripted assumptions or expectations, Hausner is seeking to open up “the possibility to question your own truths”.

Tellingly, Andrew always tries to manoeuvre around the plot lines of Hausner’s movies, only to be confounded by the filmmaker who drops major narrative elements at every turn, by which we mean huuuuuuge plot spoilers. For anyone seeing LOVELY RITA the next day, they were left in no doubt what happens come the finale… But of course, narrative pleasures aren’t really the point. Rather, her focus remains on enabling an ongoing conversation with the audience about what we think is going on, what matters (and what doesn’t) and what it suggests about our (un)common human interests.

Talking about the development process behind her films, Hausner reveals how the background research (conducted with co-writer Géraldine Bajard since LOURDES) is rooted in revealing further ambivalence, exploring unfamiliar stories (such as that of the true case that inspired LOVELY RITA) or exploring different angles from those of typically male-made movies with their narrative certainty. In Hausner’s world, the traumatic final acts of LOVELY RITA (no spoilers here…) don’t come from a horrific place, they come from a very normal world: “It could have been me”.

SCREEN DIARY: AMOUR FOU, part of THE CINEMA OF JESSICA HAUSNER at BFI Southbank (21 to 29 FEB 2020).
SCREEN DIARY: AMOUR FOU, part of THE CINEMA OF JESSICA HAUSNER at BFI Southbank (21 to 29 FEB 2020).

For her costume drama, AMOUR FOU, history too becomes something to question, firmly rejecting Andrew’s idea that she might have a different responsibility when recounting ’true life tales’. Hausner recounts the hilarious/cautionary saga of how she met with “people who think they know” everything about one of the film’s main subjects, poet Heinrich von Kleist (who convinced a female friend, Henriette Vogel, to commit suicide with him in 1811). The head of the Kleist Society had failed to respond to Hausner’s invitation for an ‘open conversation’. Instead, he’d marked her script (in red ink!), insisting on correcting it throughout their meeting, saying of Hausner’s portrayal of Vogel in particular: “That was not her. That was not what she was like”.

“How can this person say this is not what Henriette Vogel is like? No one knows. I was surprised about that strange thought that we might ever really know what it was like back then. Coming back to your question, no, I didn’t feel I have to repeat what was said about Kleist because I didn’t even think that this is true.”

The forever tilting mechanisms of fate and fortune is further revealed in one of Hausner’s answers to an audience question: “Why was [LITTLE JOE] made in English and not German?” Before giving a fascinating articulation of the expressive and poetic differences between English and German, Hausner declares:

“I think it’s very accidental that I was born in Austria. I hadn’t planned on doing that. I don’t even think that the German language is really the language I would have chosen if someone would have asked me in advance.”

Towards the end of the conversation with Andrew and the audience, we finally arrive at a place where Hausner is 100% definite. And this is that her films – surely any and all? – are purely pretend.

“What I am trying to do with each film is create an artificial world to avoid the so-called naturalism that I don’t believe in… I like to tell the audience, ‘this is a film you’re watching’… So we are all one eye level. I don’t cheat and say ’this is true emotions in true life with true people’… No, it’s actors on a set, directed by me.”

And it’s this commitment to artifice that keeps us coming back to Hausner’s films because the means and ways of her cinema are as intoxicating as the aromas arising from Little Joe. It’s spotting how reality is being avoided, undermined and flipped that make her films such great rewatches. We had a field day with the bold graphic design in LITTLE JOE for example, which is awash with generic take-away food packaging, corporate branding and ‘back to school’ laboratory notebooks. The production designs, the ‘looks’, of her films are always richly articulated, but they are there to remind audiences not to get carried away with what they think they know. But who needs narrative certainty when the films themselves are the definite article?

And that’s the meat of it…

Jessica Hausner appeared on stage with Geoff Andrew at BFI Southbank for LITTLE JOE + JESSICA HAUSNER IN CONVERSATION as part of THE CINEMA OF JESSICA HAUSNER (21 FEB 18:00).

THE CINEMA OF JESSICA HAUSNER

SCREEN DIARY: LOVELY RITA, part of THE CINEMA OF JESSICA HAUSNER at BFI Southbank (21 to 29 FEB 2020).
SCREEN DIARY: LOVELY RITA, part of THE CINEMA OF JESSICA HAUSNER at BFI Southbank (21 to 29 FEB 2020).

“We celebrate one of the most distinctive European filmmakers working today, and welcome her to the BFI stage.” Includes:

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