Austrian writer and director Jessica Hausner practically has a season ticket to Cannes. Most recently, she was a member of the 2021 jury, judging the films in competition. Now, two years later, she is back on the other side of the fence with her second English language production, Club Zero.
Ms Novak (Mia Wasikowska), a new teacher, joins an affluent private school. She teaches a course called Conscious Eating, in which students learn to eat slower, to eat less, then gradually evolve to seek purification of the body through autophagy. A select group of believers may be granted the privilege of becoming part of the worldwide secret organisation entitled Club Zero: people who do not live off food at all.
The film may start with a trigger warning for depictions of eating disorders and behaviour control, but anorexia is not the topic so much as it is the basis for an allegory. By using an irrefutable truth (the fact that the human body needs nutrients to sustain itself), Hausner examines the development of tinfoil hat theories. Almost a straight journey through Abbie Richards’s conspiracy chart, the movement starts grounded in reality – excess is unhealthy – but becomes more and more detached in its belief system of living on thin air.
The use of colour schemes in Club Zero is extraordinary, as is its implementation through wardrobe and scenography: school uniforms are of an unpleasant greenish yellow and blue; the students’ beautifully furnished bedrooms display more individuality than their inhabitants.
Many of the scenes are edited in-frame rather than through cutting between shots. The images start centred, often symmetrical to a degree Wes Anderson would be proud of, then they veer off-course, to the left or right, when a slow Zoom shifts attention elsewhere.
It is a very stylised film, so much so that design almost threatens to overshadow substance. Such is the case in particular when it comes to performance. The stiff, over-articulate cadence to the actor’s voices is too consistent to not be deliberate, but has a perturbing effect on the viewer. If people act robotically from the start, there is little room for progression to express the effects the cult has on the teenagers.
With the highest number of walkouts for a Competition film so far, this divisive brainwashing drama may very likely be jury president Ruben Östlund’s frontrunner for the Palme d’Or.
Club Zero does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Cannes Film Festival 2023 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.
Watch the trailer for Club Zero here: