Jessica Hausner’s dark comedy, Club Zero (2023), is provocative stuff; the kind of talking-point movie one always hopes to see at Cannes. It explores themes of power and control within an educational environment, but also lack of those same things in the home, the story unfolds as a slow motion calamity, warnings signs unheeded because well-meaning but clueless parents no longer lay down the law to their kids but treat them as equals to placate at every turn.
Set on the Talent Campus, an international private school located in an unknown country where everybody speaks English with a variety of accents, the seemingly delightful Miss Novak (Mia Wasikowska) joins the faculty one day and is an instant hit with the headmistress (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and pupils. This Mary Poppins of the faculty, we will soon discover, is more like Jim Jones fishing for followers.
Novak is a proponent of a health fad known as Conscious Eating. She believes humans can live without food and begins to indoctrinate the school kids. A select group embrace her ideas for what is basically anorexia and claim they’ve never felt better in their lives. Novak’s ultimate motives are kept mysterious and that’s precisely are what give Austrian Hausner’s film a strange ambience. In her eyes, it isn’t manipulation of impressionable minds, it’s the truth … with a capital T. Psycho or true believer? Hausner isn’t telling. She will let it linger and hope we think deep and hard about what we’ve seen.
Wasikowska is on brilliantly creepy form as the cheery teacher who exerts such confidence. Preaching the joys of autophagy, the unhappy kids swallow her unproven claims (pun totally intended) and find happiness in damaging their bodies. Of course she’s talking absolute crap, but nobody challenges her, or when they do, they are met with that cult-style certainty which treats the person asking a question like they’re thick, like they just don’t understand because they have a closed mind.
The subject of body dysmorphia is a brave one to tackle and Miss Novak promoting anorexia as a cure-all instead of as an illness is deeply disturbing. There’s one scene in particular that is frankly unwatchable, involving a girl so given into the idea we are minds over bodies, she boastingly proves it by consuming her own vomit on a dinner plate in front of her aghast parents. How’s that for childhood rebellion? Yeesh!
Hausner has made a fascinating film guaranteed to rile as much as intrigue. As bleakly funny as it is, Club Zero is also seriously probing contentious issues, human psychology, the nature of belief. It also tackles a rare topic on the screen: human stupidity; how even clever people can be duped into believing nonsense. Unhappy people are prone to buying into fads and promises of a brighter tomorrow. The kids, we can put down their embracing of the absurd down as the folly of youth, but the adults … what’s their excuse for being so gullible?
Still: Festival de Cannes