Bleak, clean spaces arranged in ominously geometrical order: Jessica Hausner’s eye for threatening design was destined to alight, sooner or later, on a boarding school. Our first glimpse of the expensive English boarding school for talented teenagers is from somewhere on the ceiling, from where we watch students in a sporty pan-gender uniform – long shorts and shirts in a sickly acid green, surely the color of nausea – moving stackable plastic chairs to form a circle.
Miss Novak (Mia Wasikowska) stands out in her warm rust trousers and orange polo. She is in the school at the instigation of the parents’ association to teach an elective on nutrition. Her focus is “conscious eating,” a focus the patrician headmistress Miss Dorset (Sidse Babett Knudsen) thinks could benefit everyone, including her. Yes, she will accept a packet of Miss Novak’s “fasting tea.” She will skip her customary cake. We could all do better, mindfully speaking. Miss Novak is an inspiration.
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Actually, Miss Novak is an odd fish, with her unplaceable accent and solitary life; one of her attractions for the head is that she will always be available to work weekends because, as she says, “I am alone.” So is Fred, whose parents are working in Ghana and clearly happy to leave him in school for the duration. Elsa, Ragna and Ben go home for weekends. Helena’s parents take her skiing. They find their children starting to pick at food, then refusing to eat at all. Elsa’s slender mother keeps watch as her daughter vomits; she is secretly thrilled to have a fellow bulimic in the family. Ragna’s father devotedly makes vegan food, trying to curry favor with his daughter, the champion trampoliner. Vegan, she says contemptuously to him, is so over.
There is a sense here that Hausner is constructing her little circle of obsessional starvers as a pure cult. In another era, they might have fixated on some other form of self-abnegation: the crucial element is their shared blind faith. Hausner has, in fact, already explored faith, fixations and self-delusion before in Lourdes – in which the question of whether miracles happen was teased out, but never answered – and in Amour Fou, about two young 19th century artists who succumb to the romance of suicide. Little Joe, her most recent film, held unfettered scientific research – another kind of obsession – up to neon-lit scrutiny.
Club Zero has neither Lourdes’ layered ambivalence nor the weird sci-fi overtones of Little Joe, either of which might have pushed it past the constraints of her subject. Anorexia is, admittedly, too monstrous a thing to minimize. Club Zero may look like an exercise in style, but it is made with the anger and purpose of a documentary, full of detailed particulars that speak of in-depth research. Anyone who has had to face down adolescent anorexia at close quarters will recognize not just the young people’s denials and defiance, but the very words they say to protect themselves from the bumbling efforts of parents desperate to see their children eat. These are, of course, parents who do not have time to raise their children, as Miss Dorset observes serenely. They leave it to the school to provide love and check their progress – at an appropriate distance, of course.
Also immediately recognizable is the nutritional information Miss Novak feeds her class. Lifestyle sections of respectable newspapers are full of it. It is true that bad diets mean that, for the first time ever, a new generation can be expected to die before their parents. Intensive farming does impact climate change. Ultra-processed food has been linked to allergies and other maladies. That is what gives persuasive power to any cult’s shtick: the bits we already agree with. And for these young high achievers, it isn’t a huge leap from accepting that they could eat less to believing they could eat nothing at all. There are people who claim to live on light alone, reported straight-faced in said newspapers. Hausner has not had to invent anything.
There is a great deal to admire here in all this. There is a brilliant percussive score by Markus Binder, erupting as thumps and bangs like aural jump scares. There are those sharply constructed images and Hausner’s refusal to look away from uncomfortable facts. There are even moments of bitter humor. Just when we are convinced that Miss Novak is a complete charlatan, we find her immersed in private devotions to the Almighty Mother, a spirit apparently living inside a lily with a tealight burning between its petals. You have to laugh.
At the same time, you long for her story to explode into something stranger, a story that will take us somewhere we have never seen. Or perhaps that is desire for resolution, dressed up as criticism. Perhaps, like those helpless, inadequate parents, I just want to see those kids eat.
Title: Club Zero
Festival: Cannes (Competition)
Director-Screenwriter: Jessica Hausner
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Luke Barker, Ksenia Devriendt, Elsa Zylberstein, Matthieu Demy
Running TIme: 1 hr, 50 mins
Sales agent: Coproduction Office
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