A slowly spinning overhead shot clues in the clued-in viewer – Jessica Hausner is branching out with Little Joe, but is she blooming? Central Europe’s most playfully odd filmmaker crosses the English Channel for a British sci-fi-tinged quasi-comedy, and if the lulling whirl of the opening shot is anything to go by, she’s crossed into new territory, though without jettisoning her artistic signatures. Rather than a rough, clumsy mish-mash of genres, including monster-movie horror, deadpan comedy, and paranoia thriller, Little Joe is a typically lean, exacting showcase of Hausner’s technical abilities, drawing from said genres to fashion a new genre, unique to itself. Even within her own oeuvre, this picture makes a singular statement, down to its amusingly stilted deployment of a specific, vaguely sinister brand of English cheeriness, or its almost alien colour palette of bright jewel tones, faded flesh tones, plenty of white and plenty more of aqua. It’s nothing if not original!
Alas, is it anything other than original? One might consider Hausner a conceptual genius without the skill to complete her vision, as many of cinema’s most exciting artists are, but she’s laid those skills bare so many times before as to put them beyond dispute, and indeed scatters them through Little Joe like tantalising reminders of what she can achieve when everything’s firing on all cylinders. Several cylinders here, however, seem a little empty – all elements possess evident value, yet too few are exploited to their fullest extent, and the result is a movie that feels often, and from early on, like it’s on the brink of synthesizing all of its parts into something truly astonishing. Instead, it lingers at arm’s length, content to work on its own absurd terms, and why shouldn’t it? If only those terms were a tad more substantial, one of cinema’s most exciting artists might have produced one of her most fulfilling works.
At least Little Joe shows signs of firing on any cylinders; I can’t say the same for Apolline Traoré’s Desrances. I’m not fond of bashing movies in keen need of an audience, and loathe to report that one of the ridiculously rare movies from a female African filmmaker to cross beyond the continent’s borders is a dud, but facts are facts, America! You take a chance on an unknown quantity, and chance isn’t always in your favour – I relish the opportunity to seek out obscure works each year at the London Film Festival, though that relish can be short-lived. I’ll keep this brief, as I sincerely wish those involved in this well-intentioned Burkinabe feature the very best, but this overwrought melodrama squanders those intentions on a pitifully cliched story of the traumatic effects of war on an immigrant family in 2010 Côte d’Ivoire. Traoré possesses a clear, unwavering understanding of classical dramatic technique, but her artistic vision beyond that is apparently non-existent, and a plot full of convenient contrivances, tin-ear dialogue and acting so bad it doesn’t bear mentioning only compound Traore’s issues. See it if you’re eager to support Burkinabe cinema, which has certainly seen better days, and hopefully shall see them again.