Credit: Cannes Film Festival
by M.G. Mailloux Featured Film

Club Zero — Jessica Hausner

March 14, 2024

A favorite of the Cannes selection committee for the last 20 years or so, Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner has enjoyed a semi-embattled relationship with attendees of the festival for just as long. Well suited for the Un Certain Regard category under which most of her feature films have premiered, the largely positive reception of her harsh, anti-romantic period suicide comedy Amour Fou (2014) ended up elevating her to main competition, in which she premiered 2019’s Little Joe; this year, she landed in comp again, with Club Zero. This context has brought with it some of the harshest criticisms of her already divisive career, though one imagines such pushback is a mark of success for Hausner, whose particular approach to satire targets our broad complicity in societies failings while offering little certainty in how to resolve these grand conflicts. For many, this perspective immediately casts Hausner as a satirist in the same tradition as Michael Haneke, or Matt Stone and Trey Parker, artists who often indulge glibness and tend towards a sneering, combative relationship with their audience. But Hausner’s work is more nuanced even as it tackles thorny subjects like our complicated relationship with SSRI’s (Little Joe), or food (Club Zero). Hausner’s films walk a delicate line, introducing unreal, allegorical element into a world that is otherwise, essentially, reality, and as such there is a commitment to allowing events to unfold as they likely might were we to become entangled in such a spectacular scenario as those depicted in these two most recent projects. 

And indeed, Club Zero’s premise is quite tantalizing, centering on a group of students at an expensive European boarding school who fall under the sway of Ms. Novak (Mia Wasikowska), the recently appointed “conscious eating” instructor who quietly indoctrinates her neglected, mostly unsupervised pupils in the dubious ways of her cutting edge philosophy. Presented as a sort of pseudo-celebrity in the world of dieting and nutrition, the parents (wealthy, globetrotting elites reliant on the school to do their parenting for them) and headmaster unanimously see Novak’s hiring as a progressive step, her dieting ethos a means of educating the children about their social responsibility in relation to current day food production’s dire environmental impact, while also encouraging them to lose a little weight. While the latter notion is accepted as an inherent benefit of this program, it inevitably proves to be the point of conflict that wedges between these willful youths and their complacent, liberal parents, who quickly become concerned that conscious eating is really just disordered eating, yet are incapable of deflating the convictions of the kids after a lifetime of exhibiting none of their own. 

Those resistant to Club Zero’s machinations appear most suspicious of Hausner’s cynical depiction of the central mentor/student dynamic, and the way in which earnest, youthful political fervor is portrayed as a malleable force (there’s also some reticence to embrace the rigorously choreographed awkwardness of her formal style, which gives every performance an arch quality). But this misses the rest of the canvas:, the film’s characterization of this culture amounts to a vast system in which we’ve all been webbed up, with no character — parent and child alike — more savvy than the next, all turning to some modern day higher power for a sense of guidance or control that they might better find amongst each other. That Club Zero’s screenplay (co-authored with Hausner’s semi-frequent collaborator, Géraldine Bajard) is laden with the language of intermittent fasting and autophagy gives it a contemporary edge that contextualizes Wasikowska’s sinister, diet tea-peddling Ms. Novak as a figure akin to conservative internet thought leader/con artists like Jordan Peterson or Andrew Tate (both of whom have loudly pushed their own curious theories on human eating habits over the years). Many might balk at the choice not to make the Ms. Novak character the sole explicit villain of the piece, but Hausner, always adept at forgoing the boring path, opts for something far more slippery and less punishing than some have made this film out to be. Club Zero is ultimately less about attributing explicit blame to specific parties, and instead more interested in summing up this particularly modern sense of frustration (and perhaps alleviating a bit of the tension it brings with its wry, comedic sensibility) that’s been a byproduct of the absurd systems we’ve allowed ourselves to be trapped by. 

DIRECTOR: Jessica Hausner;  CAST: Mia Wasikowska, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Sam Hoare, Amanda Lawrence;  DISTRIBUTOR: Film Movement;  IN THEATERS: March 15;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 50 min.

Originally published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 22.