‘Club Zero’ Review: Mia Wasikowska Plays a Cultish Nutrition Teacher in Jessica Hausner’s Uneven Satire
Sidse Babett Knudsen is also on hand as a school principal not paying sufficient attention to potential disasters coming her way in this Cannes competition entry.
As if in response to criticism that her last film, botanical horror story Little Joe, was too opaque, Austrian director Jessica Hausner has delivered with Club Zero a Cannes competitor that's about as subtle as a sock to the nose.
Effectively a modern-day retelling of that classic Middle European folk tale, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, but adorned with a few modish bells and whistles -- and, like all Hausner's work, impeccably designed -- this casts Mia Wasikowska as a smiling "nutrition teacher" who indoctrinates her students into a cult of disordered eating, at first preaching miraculous health and environmental benefits.
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The script, by Hausner and her regular screenwriting partner Geraldine Bajard, pretty obviously has a number of deserving targets in its sights: the wellness and diet industry and its sinister influencers; distracted and sometimes hypocritical parents who don't see the signs of mental illness in their own children; maybe even the poor supervision offered at private schools; and the highly controversial "pro-ana" movement that promotes anorexia online. All that's fair game.
The problem here is that the satirical arrows don't really land because the air is too thick with archness and day-glo irony. Sadly, the most problematic component is the inexperience of the younger actors, many of whom are performing on screen for the first time, and who have not been well-directed. It doesn't help that they have to deliver often weirdly phrased lines of dialogue in English, dialogue that sometimes sounds like it was translated from German by an AI interface. (One example: "We are extremely grateful for all the good will you exert on us.")
This kind of non-naturalistic, borderline surreal milieu can be pulled off, for instance by filmmakers like Yorgos Lanthimos, say, or even Lars Von Trier on a good day. But it requires seasoned performers, which fortunately Wasikowska and co-star Sidse Babett Knudsen can deliver here. But the broadness of the satire and the tawdry desire to shock dilute the film's strong points.
There is a scene where one teenage girl (Ksenia Devriendt) eats her own vomit that will immediately elevate this to the Cannes arthouse-grossout hall of fame, alongside last year's Palme d'Or winner Triangle of Sadness, which in a strange way this resembles in spirit. Club Zero will certainly have its supporters, on the Croisette and beyond, and who could not love the saturated colors of Tanja Hausner's costumes and Beck Rainford's chillingly austere production design? But the clarity of vision found in her earlier works - especially Amour Fou, Lourdes and Hotel - doesn't flower on this film's arid soil.
At least the screenplay is economical and to the point. We first meet new teacher Ms. Novak (Wasikowska, perhaps channeling the faintly foreign accent of a Polish relative) on her first day teaching nutrition to a small class at a small educational establishment called The Talent Campus. (Is this perhaps a dig at the Berlinale, which runs an educational course of the same name parallel to its festival?) As the camera tracks slowly from student to student (DP Martin Gschlacht's stylized work is on point as ever), each teenager explains why they want to think more about what they eat. No one admits to simply wanting to be thinner -- that's not the Gen Z way. Instead, they want to improve their sports performance, for example, or consume food in a way that lessens the agricultural industry's harm to the environment.
Using handy-dandy charts that look like they were made with cutout pictures of food from vintage Good Housekeeping magazines, Ms. Novak explains the risks of overeating and poor diet and suggests this one clever trick (as they say in Instagram ads) to help manage hunger: conscious 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 Novak has charmed her marks and lured them into her circle, she keeps moving the goal posts. Next they should eat "plant-based mono food," or food composed of just one fruit or vegetable ingredient. Then she tells the kids that the most devout and best conscious eaters can join an elite, secret society, Club Zero, which admits only those who eat no food whatsoever.
The little lambs led up the hill to this arid pasture of deadly purity are an assortment of stock teenage types. There's rich pretty girl Elsa (Devriendt), who, as one teacher notes later, has always had bulimia thanks to the example of her image-conscious bulimic 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 make cracks about her weight and suggest losing a few pounds will help with her competitive trampolining. Fred (Luke Barker), an aspiring ballet dancer with a taste for guyliner, has a similar motivation to reduce his calorie intake, while Ben (Samuel D. Anderson), a boy from a much poorer background, needs the grade in class to help him win a scholarship. He's the last to be indoctrinated into Ms. Novak's clique of favorites, much to the despair of his sweet single mother (Amanda Lawrence), who's always loved cooking for her once-appreciative son.
Ms. Novak's own motivations are more obscure, although there are scenes where she prays at a homemade shrine to the "Holy Mother," although judging by the iconography of lotus flowers it doesn't seem like this is the same female deity worshipped by Sylvie Testud in Hausner's Catholic-tastic Lourdes. Wasikowska -- with her amused, intelligent eyes and ramrod posture (rocking a series of polo shirts may do for that t-shirt style what Gwyneth Paltrow did for them in The Royal Tenenbaums -- is aptly mesmerizing. If the dialogue never explains why she's started or got involved in this strange, self-destructive quasi-religion, it's palpable that Ms. Novak has her reasons. She's just not telling us.
As the easily bamboozled school principal Ms. Dorset, Knudsen doesn't offer as much dimensionality to her character -- but clearly she's mainly there to be laughed at, with her loud purple prints and retro coiffure, with a roll on top like a sleek hair sausage. At first she's all in with the conscious eating program herself, but then loses interest and goes back to adding sugar and milk to Ms. Novak's special tea. That doesn't mean she spots how malignant Novak's influence has become on the young people under her spell. When pressure builds to fire the new teacher (the precise word used is "expelled," which is what happens to students, not teachers -- did none of the British cast and crew think to point this out on set?), the grounds for dismissal are socializing with a student outside of school hours. But perhaps it's pointless getting worked up about the dimness of characters who are little more than sock puppets for the author's undercooked message.