A horror film told in bright lights and marzipan colors, a dark comedy that rarely gets around to making you laugh, or a religious parable that somehow folds in the litany of dooms and anxieties keeping us all up at night — writer/director Jessica Hausner’s “Club Zero” is a tough nut to crack.
Premiering in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, the film offers English-language social satire cut with chilly European severity in a manner similar to last year’s Palme d’Or winner “Triangle of Sadness” – and not just due to a pukey provocation jury president Ruben Östlund may take as a game, set, match.
In simplest terms, “Club Zero” is a film about eating disorders, and one so unflinching about the subject that it warrants a content warning ahead of the opening credits. Of course, Hausner makes abundantly clear that her film is about so much more from the moment those credits roll, and we find ourselves in an affluent private academy full of wood panels, Formica surfaces and about a hundred other interior design choices pulled from a rec room in 1970s hell.
Onto the scene struts Ms. Novak (Mia Wasikowska, with a pageboy ‘do and an implacable accent pitched between Dutch pervert and Austrian gnome) and into the classroom she goes. A wellness coach of apparently some renown (she does have her own brand of Fasting Tea with her face plastered on each box), Ms. Novak has been hired as Bell Bottom High’s new health instructor. Only once her new pupils speak up, they reveal acutely modern anxieties.
One is concerned about ecological collapse, another about economic imbalance, the next about personal optimization. But whatever the stress, the balm is the same – each must reset their body’s relation to food under a program called Conscious Eating. Like any good scheme, the program comes in steps. First, they must eat slower – a lot slower, chewing in slow-mo and using cutlery with the theatrical flourish of a classical dancer. Then they must eat less – a lot less, and only one (unprocessed, ideally organic) food item at a time, and then, for those who are really committed, they are to eat nothing at all.
As she follows the various string bean students, Hausner uses irony as a cudgel, creating dissonances between the kitschy, taffy-colored set designs and the severity of the plot. A jaunty musical beat will underscore dialogue about empowerment as the teens shrink ever more into their clothes. Then we have dramatic irony as the parents – who are all rich and oblivious, granted, but not that rich and oblivious – try to get the school to intervene. The solution? More time with the dedicated wellness coach!
That the one parent/student initially unconvinced comes from the working class affords the film a bit of class war edge, but in the end, Hausner’s wider interests lay elsewhere. Ms. Novak drags the kids to hell, but she does so with good intentions, and the film plays into her true believer’s rhetoric, never winking as hews an affected path. If Hausner doesn’t buy into Novak’s claptrap, the film’s visual language sometimes does, framing the student undergoing what amounts to gradual self-destruction as they would see themselves.
That theme of salvation through self-destruction should hardly land as a shock at a festival where Martin Scorsese was the star attraction, but Hausner does find her own notes to play. Rather than repent for the sins of the soul, these ever-more-gaunt students want to transcend external stresses – their entry into Club Zero paid for by letting go of Gen Z concerns.
With an uncompromising style, a grab bag of ideas thrown up on the screen as moving targets and a provocative flair – with that aforementioned upchuck doing more with less, one-upping Östlund with less velocity and more audacity – “Club Zero” is made to divide. That was certainly the case in Cannes, where the film inspired both awe and animosity. This reviewer felt neither of the two but did appreciate Hausner’s commitment to the bit.
Like “Triangle of Sadness” before it, and like so many titles hitting any number of screens, “Club Zero” says little new, recycling the same wider anxieties we pretty much all share. But it does so with artistic courage and a unique voice. Isn’t that what cinema’s for?