Club Zero: this ambiguous boarding school drama feels strangely one-note

Jessica Hausner’s latest entry into her world of peculiar microcultures is set entirely at a sort-of boarding-school where the students somehow live without eating, creating a monotonous mystery that feels as empty as their stomachs.

25 May 2023

By Nicolas Rapold

Mia Wasikowska as Ms Novak in Club Zero (2023)Mia Wasikowska as Ms Novak in Club Zero (2023) © Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival 2023
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival 

Like the otherworldly orchids in Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe, which exert a near-mystical hold on people, the Austrian director cultivates an open signifier in each film with a mesmeric focus. These zones of ambiguity are kept free of definition for as long as possible, even though each usually belongs to a recognisable realm of mystery: religious miracles in Lourdes (2009), sci-fi in Little Joe (2019), love itself in Amour Fou (2014), or the supernatural in Hotel – Hausner’s 2004 hard pivot from the abject realism of Lovely Rita (2001), which lead toward her current hypnotic stringency and crucial collaboration with DP Martin Gschlacht and costume designer Tanya Hausner (her sister).

Club Zero is her latest entry in Lanthimos-adjacent microcultures, set entirely at a sort-of boarding-school with a peculiar new nutrition teacher named Ms Novak (Mia Wasikowska). Novak preaches a diet she calls “Conscious Eating” that culminates in eating nothing—no food, nada, not a crumb. Her coterie of teenage students, clad in awkward uniforms of pale yellow tunics and billowing khakis, slowly warm to the practice and resist entreaties to eat from their concerned parents, whom most seem to visit regularly. Novak has a cult-like hold on the youngsters but with a soft-power touch, and her control seems limited to proselytising the diet with a fine restaurant server’s cleanly hushed enunciation and an indefinable touch of an accent.

How is any of this possible without starvation, or at least what is medically known as “getting hangry”? Therein lies Hausner’s latest cinematic question mark. Viewers can likewise proffer a number of interpretations for what Hausner is doing here. Is Conscious Eating an allegory about reducing consumption, presented here as something we could all do if we just had the willpower, despite many saying it is impossible? Could Hausner be quietly in awe of the steadfastness of youthful protest, or is this a satire of unrealistic ideals and Thunberg-esque absolutism? The only thing that’s fairly certain is that either Hausner or writing partner Géraldine Bajard have logged some time on or near mealy-mouthed school boards.

An early class meeting (filmed in a continuous pan reminiscent of a similar class pan in 2003’s Elephant) does offer the students’ initial rationales for embarking on Conscious Eating: reducing ecological footprints, weight loss, general self-control, and in one case scholarship requirements. As the film goes on, these people – it’s hard to use the term “characters” – speak methodically of their devotion or opposition to Conscious Eating, standing around the capacious Danish modernist backdrops of the school (shot at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford). There’s the odd music recital and a performance of Peter and the Wolf, and the students gather in eerie humming circles. But it’s incredibly static besides occasional zooms that feel mechanically deliberate, almost servo-like, whenever they click into action.

Club Zero (2023)
Club Zero (2023)
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival 2023

The students appear to suffer no ill effects, except for one that quits his insulin regime, and the film settles tediously into the largely one-note groove of are-they-or-aren’t-they (secretly eating, that is), in a narrative game of withholding information that feels oddly dated. Wasikowska is consistent but seems somewhat at a loss for where to take her character, understandably so; when Novak is shown worshipping a small floral shrine and the Almighty Mother, the effect is a little too comical for a religious element to enter (and one gets a slight whiff of a denatured dismissal of Eastern spirituality). All this too is a familiar Hausner move: can what we’re seeing actually be happening, is there a space for the divine or the profound, amid the role-playing and artifice in a modern world drained of meaning or feeling? The high-def images of Club Zero are as super-lucid as the film’s import is kept monotonously mysterious.

A sickly green colour seemed to creep into the film’s palette more and more toward the end of the film, just as I’d decided Hausner had made a film about hypocrisy, since the students must be fibbing and therefore lying all the time. Some final gestures (a student eating her own vomit, a surprising joyous surge of Mahalia Jackson) are trotted out, but by the time film culminates in a predictably enigmatic mirage of shangri-la, the film’s singleminded approach brought to mind the joke of the man who keeps hitting himself with a hammer: why? because it feels so good when he stops.

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