We Have to Obey the Role We’re Supposed to Play: A Conversation with Jessica Hausner

With a retrospective in New York and her first English-language film, the sci-fi "Little Joe," the Austrian director is in the spotlight.
Scout Tafoya
Little Joe
Above: Little Joe
Jessica Hausner is one of the great observers in modern cinema. The human body and its roots and tendrils are examined as if in a nature documentary while circumstances become outrageous: The faces of her heroines, the slow body language meant to mask an internal longing and anxiousness, the minute changes in expressions, the cracking of a voice. The world suddenly becomes too small for her characters and we watch as they try to breathe. Hausner began by observing young Germans and their first brushes with the thorniness of adult life and its inherent violence. In her shorts Flora (1995), Inter-View (1999), and her first feature Lovely Rita (2001), she shows people who seem like they want to claw their way out of their cramped surroundings or even out of their own skin. In 2004’s Hotel, her aesthetic playbook was completely rewritten. Suddenly a clinical stillness and a nagging, asymmetrical design fell over her cinema like a sleeping sickness. In that film, a young woman played by Franziska Weisz works the eerie night shift at a mountain resort and slowly unearths a conspiracy lingering just out of her sight in the darkness beyond hallways, out in the unknown wilderness beyond every window and wall. It was Plato’s Cave rewritten as almost a horror movie. But there was no ghost, no killer, no monster. Just silence, uncertainty. Anyone not paying attention to Hausner by this point was missing a trick.  
It was 2009’s Lourdes that graduated her to one of the strongest voices in world cinema. Sylvie Testud, in one of the great actress’s best performances, plays a woman bereft the use of her legs. She makes a life of visiting holy places hoping for a miracle, taking advantage of the sympathy of strangers in the meantime. Hausner filmed the holy sight of Lourdes like it was Disney World, and Testud’s infectious optimism, rendered heartbreaking by a host of unusual, fateful turns, lingers with the same strange force as the sight of thousands of unfortunate souls hoping to touch the hand of god. The film’s delirious ambiguity turns feverish by the end, leaving the burning desire to know what happens next. This is Hausner’s gift. Stopping right when we demand more. In Amour Fou (2014) and now 2019’s transcendently strange and beguiling Little Joe, the director has placed her by now trademark patience and insistent gaze into brand new outfits. Amour Fou is a period film that picks apart a historical romance and finds only coercion, ignorance, and misery. Little Joe is a science fiction parable in which specially bred plants begin commanding their human makers to perform tasks for them. It’s alternately hilarious and deeply unsettling, a film that pushes past its human characters to show the beauty of blank walls and ergonomically designed laboratories. The plastic perfection of the laboratories where most of the film takes place seems to deliberately ape the Silicon Valley inspire slickness of Apple stores or even an Ikea showroom, all the better to ask some incredibly upsetting questions. If everything is perfect, why isn’t everyone happy all the time? Isn’t that the ultimate goal? If so, is it better to wear a happiness you don’t possess, if only to fit in with the goals of everyone around you? 
Of course, Hausner and her tidy mise en scène seem a strange conduit for such relentlessly bleak musings, and talking to the Austrian director, who has a sense of humor about everything, makes the incongruousness of internal and external even more delightfully galling. The occasion of the interview was a much-deserved retrospective of her films at Lincoln Center, who have gathered all her idiosyncratically transcendent work in one place. The retrospective is also to mark the release of Little Joe, which is bound to leave people uncomfortable, and Hausner’s breezy demeanor and humility make her seem wholly unconcerned. For her all of life is about how you look at things.  

NOTEBOOK: Your films all concern surveillance of one kind or another, whether it’s an entire network of minders of the same class looking after Henriette Vogel in Amour Fou, or the staff at a hotel watching and being watched during the long night shift. Little Joe is the first of your movies to turn surveillance into something outright malevolent or insidious, to really call attention to the fact that we’re all being watched. Has this always been your obsession or was this a case of reality intruding on your obsessions? 
JESSICA HAUSNER: I haven’t been asked that question before—it’s an interesting perspective. When you think about Lourdes, you had those perspective shots from up above, we called it the God’s eye. Lourdes is very much about god, who is maybe on holiday, maybe he forgot about us [laughs]. It asks that question is there someone watching us, and in my other films I’m also reflecting on that very human longing. Like we wish that there were someone watching us. It’s not even negative, the desirous perspective, that there might be someone watching us, but on the other hand it’s threatening because this is what society does. If society was an entity like god, society is watching us. In all my films what I focus on is that every one of us is trying to please society. We say what we should say, we do what we should do. The Western countries, especially, with our so-called freedom, we have very strict political correctness code and if you disregard them otherwise you’re going to be expelled. Or “Shitstormed,” or whatever word you want to find. It’s a pretty spooky idea that manipulation is imperceptible or invisible in our society. Maybe that’s the undertone of the surveillance.
NOTEBOOK: They say “cancelled” over here.
HAUSNER: Right, cancelled!
NOTEBOOK: We talk a big game in the United States States about making sure that people who transgress are punished for it, but public opinion can’t really hold people accountable, it can at best gesture at notions of justice. There isn’t proof that it works. I don’t know if it’s the same in Europe. 
HAUSNER: They’re very interesting rules. It’s not that easy because it’s not about “justice” or good and bad. It’s special rules that our societies follow.
NOTEBOOK: Little Joe is sort of the inverse of Amour Fou, in that if anyone had been spying on Henriette Vogel they could have stepped in and said something about the man who has leading her astray. In Little Joe it’s because Emily Beacham’s character is constantly being watched that she can’t stay a step ahead of the developing conspiracy among her co-workers.  
HAUSNER: But it’s always about perspective. In Amour Fou and in Little Joe you have that feeling that there isn’t one truth. In Amour Fou, you have the doctor who brings his diagnosis and curses Henriette Vogel to death, and then at the end he apologizes that it wasn’t right after all. Then there are the discussions about the political situation, the way democracy is ruining us all. It’s very much about how truth can change. I think in Little Joe you have a similar perspective because science is supposed to give you the ultimate answers and it doesn’t. You have to admit that also this desire for one valid answer cannot be fulfilled. One scientist says this and another says the opposite and altogether they can’t be sure what the answer is. You have that in Lourdes as well, the very ambitious thing about the miracle that may not be one as well.
Above: Little Joe
NOTEBOOK: Do you ever think about what this period is going to look like to someone looking back the same number of years you look back in Amour Fou? You’ve sort of reached into the future and found us much the same as we are now. What would you say is the character of this era? 
HAUSNER: Well, I don’t know if I could tell you that, but one thing that comes to mind is inequality. You know that film The Hunger Games? What was interesting to me was they showed women in powerful positions which gave me a feeling of science fiction. It must take place in the future because in the world I live in now I still see those pictures of all the decision makers of the world and there’s Angela Merkel and then it’s a hundred men. This is something I’ve thought about. My son is nine years old and maybe when he’s grown he’ll say, “How could you ever have accepted this injustice?” For example. And when I talk to my mother? She was still brought up in the era where her husband had to sign her working contracts. When I talk to her, I say, “how could you have accepted that?” And she said, “It was normal. No one was aware it was unjust!” This is interesting, our awareness of certain circumstances in society is changing and we’re really just starting to become aware of the fact that women are not part of the game. This will change, hopefully, maybe, in a hundred years they’ll look back on our society and say, “Wow… that was really unfair.”
NOTEBOOK: As you’ve progressed, your vision has remained coherent, but the restraint seems to have increased as you touch more of the surface area of your obsessions. Can you talk about what you’ve found yourself letting go as you’ve advanced as an artist? What matters more to you now? 
HAUSNER: When I started, I worked with non-professionals actors in my shorts and in Lovely Rita. On Hotel I worked with professional actors for the first time and I think I learned a lot from the non-professional actors. I learned a lot about naturalism and though my movies have become more and more styled and artificial, I still carry that with me, that moment of ambiguity that you get from a non-professional, they are not trained to deliver a message. They don’t deliver any message they just do something. You have to wonder, “What is he really thinking or feeling?” This is interesting. I try to create that with professional actors now, but I basically treat them as non-professionals. I try to bring them back to a certain ambiguity in their acting where you don’t show what you really think. They pretend to act. This is very human. Non-professional actors maybe sometimes they’re a bit wooden but one thing that’s touching is that their work isn’t made to comfort me as an audience. It doesn’t need me to watch it.  
NOTEBOOK: Your work relies on a fixed, sturdy camera view to show the nature of the world everyone’s trying to escape in one way or another, but here you move the camera in these upsetting and disorienting ways, almost like a malfunctioning CCTV.  
HAUSNER: That’s good, I like that! I’ll tell the cinematographer next time I see him. Martin [Gschlacht], the cinematographer on all my films, said lately that when he works with me, the specialty is that the camera’s doing something other than what the actors do. For him, he always needs one or two days when he works with me to change his mindset. On other films he tries to comfort the actor and the scenario but in my film I say, “Let the actors go. You do your thing, you just follow your track, and maybe we miss something of what the actors are doing!” After a while he changes and then he has it again. In this film we went a little further, but you have the idea of it, those moments where something’s missing. There’s one short film I made, Inter-view, you have that scene of violence in the garage. I was thinking about that scene [in Little Joe] where Ben Whishaw punches Emily Beacham and you only see half of his face. I talked to Martin about Inter-View and we said, “Ok let’s try that again.” We like to play with what you can and can’t see, to create insecurity in the audience to tell you very frankly that we don’t have the answer either.
NOTEBOOK: The way you approach violence, and forgive me this is going to sound incredibly rudimentary, but violence can only happen to female characters in your movies because your movies all have female heroes. When it happens it feels loaded because violence against women in film is always loaded and you make sure to film these violent events in visceral ways. You seem resolutely unafraid of how an audience will react to the way you show your female characters being beaten.  
HAUSNER: I even show the benefit of it [laughs]. She has to be punched in order to be able to kiss him. It’s so politically incorrect, I’m really embarrassed! Maybe this is a way to question those rules if you want. Of course, it’s not a very correct way of storytelling.
NOTEBOOK: Did you feel freed up or more restrained by the sci-fi genre?
HAUSNER: I always try to find some kind of corset for the stories. For Amour Fou, it was a period picture. In Lourdes, it was the setting. In Little Joe, it was the genre. It was the corset, the little house where the film takes place.  
NOTEBOOK: The film is and isn’t what we think of as typical sci-fi. It’s fascinating how much of a lid is kept on the situation by virtue of the small niche of people effected but also because everyone in the film is so quiet and demure. Did you wrestle with what genre usually asks of artists? Was there a question of how much to give your audience so they felt grounded in a recognizable science fiction world? 
HAUSNER: It was very much about Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1956]. I’ve never thought about going to Warner Bros. and pitching them a remake, but if I did, I would have offered them a happy ending. It’s not so bad if everyone’s changed, after all. This was the set-up of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you have these scenes where someone says, “My uncle changed, he’s not himself!” And then you see the uncle and he’s a perfectly normal person, so you start to ask yourself, who is the crazy one? Who has been changed and who is himself or herself anymore? This crazy set-up I really loved it. I wanted to make a film where that wasn’t answered until the very end. There are no seedpods from outer space, just a lot of question marks.  
NOTEBOOK: The repeated image of your work, and Toast makes it a full-on spectacle almost like she’s in a zoo, is the woman on display. Her life is always being examined whether it’s for minor changes in her physicality like in Lourdes or here in Little Joe, for her loyalty and performance at her job.  
HAUSNER: Now that I’ve made a lot of films, I’m aware of the fact that they’re all about women. When I started it wasn’t a conscious decision, it was just my perspective, my life, I’m the director and I could relate to those characters. There are differences between men and women, we’re mainly ruled by men. But also, men are in the kitchen with that woman [in Toast], also men are influenced by our rules. This is something that holds good for anyone, the fact that we have to obey the role we’re supposed to play. We have to know our textbook well in order to perform well in our lives. This is one way men and women are very equal. 

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