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.
All of this is also very metaphorical when it comes to questions of motherhood (the scientist Alice names the plant after her son), the antidepressant industry or even artificial worlds—social media and so forth—that are so very possessive in regard to our emotional capacity. Don’t be mistaken, we’ve all inhaled that pollen for years. But the film gives enough attention to the plant itself to make it the center of an ambivalent horror that only exists beyond metaphors. Composer Teiji Ito finds the perfect sounds for the plant, both jarring like a nest of hornets and sedative like a soft embrace, while Martin Gschlacht’s camera manages to capture the uncanny essence of the flower’s consciousness. It is neither afraid of clinically circling above the breeding stations, stone wool substrate slabs in which the genetically engineered plants grow next to each other, nor of looking directly into its non-existing eyes.
We’ve been living with plants long enough to know that usually, they don’t kill us, we kill them. The director not only plays with the tropes of the genre, she deconstructs them and thus mirrors a new way of thinking about plant life, a way which doesn’t focus on the alterity of a consciousness foreign to us but on the scientific methods of manipulation that (possibly) turn the plants against us. It’s not the plant that is harmful, it’s us messing with it. It’s more Frankenstein than The Evil Dead or even The Body Snatchers—cited as a major influence by the director. Hausner’s is a horror I know and feel, the horror of glasshouses and breeding experiments where we suddenly realize that the living beings we brought into these surroundings watch us and manipulate our way of thinking because we made them do it. Strictly speaking, this kind of plant horror is human horror and the most scary and most realistic part of it is that whoever gets in touch with the pollen in the film doesn’t even realize it. “Let’s not get carried away. These plants are not that special after all,“ says one scientist who has been infected already. In Little Joe as in life, ignorance is not some symptom one can get rid of, ignorance is the sickness.
“From the tide that has engulfed a people, / and me with them, do I still / raise my head? Do I still / listen? Is all not yet lost?”
—Envoi, Umberto Saba
Imagine a horror film from the perspective of plants. They are surrounded by a deadly species with which they can’t communicate. This species is hunting them with machines and strange instruments, stepping on them, eating them, ignoring them, replacing them, transporting them keeping them in strange prisons, nobody can really know what is going on. It’s incomprehensible. Then suddenly this species is worshipping them, writing about them, nourishing them, but it’s just to classify them and use them more efficiently. When such a species comes to you with an idea, let’s say, if you make us happy, we will be nice to you. Would you trust them?
I have too little knowledge to assess whether Monica Gagliano’s important and controversial work on plant communication and cognition in which she, among many other things, considers plants that speak, is a romantic hoax, invented by those that replaced religion with nature, or if it is a scientific revolution leading into a future in which the natural world will have to be looked at differently in order for us and them to survive. Whatever it is, the act of speaking to plants and listening to them is just another way to remember that they are alive. As with human beings or animals, we have to spend time with them so we can find out what they want. In Little Joe speaking to the plant strengthens the bond between owner and seducer, human and flower. But does it matter what we say? In what tone, how loud, or when?
These questions are worked on and experimented with. However, as we can see in Little Joe, they are very often asked in order to gain knowledge humans can benefit from. It’s simple solutions that the protagonists offer. Speak to it nicely and it will make you happy. It’s typical for people to look at plants as something that may serve us and which we can exploit: for their beauty, their healing powers, their ingredients, their symbolism, their hallucinogenic effect. What may result from that, as Dawn Keetley proposed in Plant Horror. Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal in Fiction and Film is revenge. The Day of the Triffids, for example, can be looked at as a revenge plot. Maybe a first step out of ignorance would be to acknowledge the plant as a being with desires. Water, soil, light, temperatures, insects, neighbors, care, it can ask for a lot. It can also ask us to leave it in peace or for it to be somewhere else.
“I see it is with you as with the birches: / I am not to speak to you / in the personal way. Much / has passed between us. Or / was it always only / on the one side? I am / at fault, at fault, I asked you / to be human (…)”
—“Matins” from The Wild Iris, Louise Glück