As if in response to criticism that her last film, botanical horror story Little Joewas too opaque, Austrian director Jessica Hausner has delivered Club Zero a Cannes competitor that’s about as subtle as a sock to the nose.
Basically a modern retelling of that classic Central European folk tale, The Pied Piper of Hamelinbut adorned with a few fashionable bells and whistles – and, like all Hausner’s work, impeccably designed – this casts Mia Wasikowska as a smiling “nutrition teacher” who indoctrinates her students in a cult of disordered eating, initially prodigious health and environment preaches benefits.
It comes down to
Stylish, but subtle as a hammer on the head.
Location: Cannes Film Festival (competition)
Form: Mia Wasikowska, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Amir El-Masry, Elsa Zylberstein, Mathieu Demy, Ksenia Devriendt, Luke Barker, Florence Baker, Samuel D Anderson, Gwen Currant
Director: Jessica Hausner
screenwriters: Jessica Hausner, Geraldine Bajard
1 hour 49 minutes
The script, by Hausner and her regular screenwriting partner Geraldine Bajard, pretty clearly has some deserving targets in its sights: the wellness and diet industry and its sinister influencers; distracted and sometimes hypocritical parents who fail to see the signs of mental illness in their own children; perhaps even the poor supervision of private schools; and the highly controversial “pro-ana” movement promoting anorexia online. That’s all fair game.
The problem here is that the satirical arrows don’t really land because the air is too thick with archery and irony of the day. Unfortunately, the most problematic component is the inexperience of the younger actors, many of whom are performing on screen for the first time and who are not well directed. It doesn’t help that they often have to provide oddly worded dialogue in English, dialogue that sometimes sounds like it’s been translated from German by an AI interface. (An example: “We are extremely grateful for all the goodwill you give us.”)
This kind of non-naturalistic, borderline surrealistic milieu can be created, for example, by filmmakers like Yorgos Lanthimos, for instance, or even Lars Von Trier on a good day. But it requires seasoned performers, which luckily Wasikowska and co-star Sidse Babett Knudsen can provide here. But the breadth of the satire and the tawdry desire to shock weaken the film’s strengths.
There’s a scene where a teenage girl (Ksenia Devriendt) eats her own vomit, instantly elevating this to the Cannes arthouse grossout hall of fame alongside last year’s Palme d’Or winner Triangle of sadnesswhich this strangely resembles in spirit. Club Zero is sure to have its followers, on the Croisette and beyond, and who couldn’t love the saturated colors of Tanja Hausner’s costumes and Beck Rainford’s chillingly austere production design? But above all the clarity of vision in her earlier works Amour Fou, Lourdes And Hotel – does not bloom on the arid soil of this film.
At least the screenplay is frugal and to the point. We first meet new teacher Mrs. Novak (Wasikowska, perhaps with the faint foreign accent of a Polish relative) on her first day feeding a small class at a small educational institution called The Talent Campus. (Is this perhaps a dig at the Berlinale, which runs an educational course of the same name parallel to the festival?) As the camera slowly moves from student to student (DP Martin Gschlacht’s stylized work is as good as ever), each teen captures why they want to think more about what they eat. No one admits they just want to be thinner – that’s not the Gen Z way. Instead, they may want to improve their sports performance or consume food in a way that reduces the environmental impact of the agricultural industry.
Using nifty dandy cards that look like they were made with cut-out photos of vintage food Good housekeeping magazines, Ms. Novak explains the risks of overeating and a poor diet and suggests this one clever trick (as they say in Instagram ads) to help manage hunger: mindful eating. Instead of guzzling food down, take a deep breath before each bite and chew slowly. That sounds reasonable enough, but as with any cult, once she’s charmed her tracks and lured into her circle, Novak keeps moving the goalposts. Next, they should eat “plant-based mono foods,” or foods that consist of only one fruit or vegetable ingredient. Then she tells the kids that the most pious and conscious of eaters can join an elite secret society, Club Zero, that admits only those who don’t eat anything at all.
The little lambs who were led up the hill into this barren pasture of deadly purity are an assortment of tribe-type teenagers. There is the rich beautiful girl Elsa (Devriendt), who, as a teacher later notes, has always had bulimia thanks to the example of her image-conscious bulimia mother (Elsa Zylberstein). Ragna (Florence Baker) has hipster parents (Lukas Turtur and Keely Forsyth) who don’t actively promote having an eating disorder as a lifestyle, but joke about her weight and suggest that losing a few pounds will help her competitive trampolining. Fred (Luke Barker), an aspiring ballet dancer with a penchant for guyliner, has a similar motivation to reduce his calorie intake, while Ben (Samuel D. Anderson), a boy from a much poorer background, loses his grade in class. needs to help him win a scholarship. He is the last to be indoctrinated into Mrs. Novak’s club of favourites, much to the dismay of his sweet single mother (Amanda Lawrence), who has always loved to cook for her once grateful son.
Mrs. Novak’s own motivations are more obscure, though there are scenes of her praying at a self-made shrine to the “Holy Mother,” though judging by the iconography of lotus flowers, it doesn’t seem like this is the same female deity worshiped by Sylvie . Testud in Hausner’s Catholic-tastic Lourdes. Wasikowska – with her amused, intelligent eyes and dead-straight posture (rocking a range of polo shirts can do for that t-shirt style what Gwyneth Paltrow did for them in The Royal Tenenbaums — is strikingly fascinating. If the dialogue never explains why she started or got involved in this strange, self-defeating quasi-religion, it’s palpable that Ms. Novak has her reasons. She just won’t tell us.
As the easily misguided school principal Mrs. Dorset, Knudsen doesn’t offer much dimensionality to her character – but she’s clearly mainly there to be laughed at, with her loud purple prints and retro hairdo, with a roll on top like a slim hair sausage. At first she goes all the way into the mindful eating program herself, but then loses interest and goes back to adding sugar and milk to Mrs. Novak’s special tea. That doesn’t mean she realizes how evil Novak’s influence has become on the young people under her spell. When the pressure mounts to fire the new teacher (the exact word being used is ‘evicted’, which happens to students, not teachers – didn’t anyone from the British cast and crew think to point this out on set?), socialize the reason for dismissal with a student outside of school hours. But perhaps there’s no point in fretting about the vagueness of characters who are little more than sock puppets to the author’s undercooked message.