In Club Zero, the students of a radical nutrition class are taught the benefits of eating consciously––if they choose to eat at all. It’s the latest film from Austrian director Jessica Hausner, whose 2019 sci-fi drama Little Joe showed a similar level of concern for the things we put into our bodies. Club Zero is less a cautionary tale about eating disorders than a satire on environmental anxieties, extreme activism, and the sometimes-competitive nature of those who get swept up in it. That’s a tasty premise, but Hausner’s take is frankly a cynical one and, much like the plate of vomit that dominated headlines after the film’s premiere last week in Cannes, it leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.
On the plus side, Club Zero welcomes the elusive Mia Wasikowska back to the screen. And as anyone who has watched her over the years can attest, this actress’ mere presence should ring like a warning shot: brace yourself, for what follows may not be solidly attached to terra firma. Wasikowska stars as Ms. Novak, a healthy eating guru with her own brand of herbal tea, and the newest teacher at a posh English boarding school. She teaches a class on nutrition, which is a bit like saying Gandhi taught lessons on violence. (Not untrue, but you might want to work on the wording.) It’s soon revealed she’s also a member of Club Zero, an underground movement of people who believe that human beings might not need to eat food after all.
Amongst her class is queen bee Elsa (Ksenia Devriendt), who suffers from a disorder similar to bulimia and, worse still, a bad case of a dad who doesn’t care. There’s also Helen (Gwen Currant), her loyal commandant; Ragna (Florence Baker), a gymnast whose trendy parents haplessly attempt to keep up with her dietary interests; Fred (Luke Barker), a dancer set to play the lead in a production of Peter and the Wolf; and the yet-to-be-indoctrinated Ben (Samuel D Anderson), a less-affluent student who needs the points for his scholarship. (The young cast is also solid, appearing convincingly diminished by their ordeal.) Entranced by Ms. Novak’s teachings, they begin to eat consciously: at first this involves taking long, deep breaths before each bite, but soon the portions begin to shrink. Inevitably they begin edging toward Ms. Novak’s calorie-free cool-aid stand.
The colors might be more garish than muted, but Hausner’s style can suggest a bit Lanthimos-lite: mannequin-like performances and deadpan dialogue; and in Fred’s ballet and Agnar’s gymnastics, his cursed physical humor. Suffice it to say Club Zero doesn’t flatter by comparison, and what comes across as haunting from Lanthimos plays wooden here. Hausner’s tongue-in-cheek approach is simply too removed, too callous––more eager to judge than understand. (Extremes of any kind should always be fair game for satire, but it’s important to punch up, and for those punches to be thrown in good faith.) Is a good old “okay, boomer” too far? Perhaps, but surely there’s better ways to go about this––and of course you could just watch Raw.
Club Zero premiered at the 76th Cannes Film Festival.