Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner returns with an undercooked story of a controversial teacher who shakes up a boarding school
Writer-director Jessica Hausner has returned to Cannes following the success of her oddball sci-fi, Little Joe, which nabbed Emily Beecham the Best Actress prize back in 2019. Like that film, her latest is another strange, hyper-mannered alternate reality based in what appears to be the UK, this time with its satirical sights set on wellness culture, body image, teen desire, and the intersection between science and faith. Save for some interesting visual notes and angular production design, it fails in almost every regard.
A surface level exercise that, despite pulling in a number of big topics, doesn’t have anything profound to say about any of them, Club Zero stars Mia Wasikowska as Miss Novak, a newly hired teacher at a preppy boarding school who has been brought in as a nutrition expert – though “stars” is something of a stretch. Despite top billing, Wasikowska is prone to disappear for large stretches of the movie, suggesting this was actually just a few days’ shooting for the actor. She's also miscast, unable to conjure up the quality this movie so desperately requires in order to work: a sense of her supposed allure.
Miss Novak teaches her students something called “conscious eating,” see, where they must endeavour to concentrate as hard as possible whenever they sit down for a meal – a method purported to be good for the planet, because it will make them less hungry, and also their long-term health. But Miss Novak, who captures the minds of five specific students (a slew of terrible performances) to the growing concern of their usually apathetic parents, actually intends to indoctrinate them with a more dangerous way of thinking. Soon she's telling her most devout followers that they don't need to eat at all – if they believe hard enough, they can survive on willpower alone.
What does it all mean? Club Zero keeps its cards close to its chest, but only because there's nothing written on them. The film presumably wants to locate a place of ambiguity that encourages questions and provokes debates. But we're held at such a remove by the artificial atmosphere and stilted acting, with motives and explanations nowhere to be seen, that the film quickly comes to feel aimless and eventually laborious. One sickly scene seems designed purposely to shock (this is a film that, unusually, starts with a trigger warning – though whether this is meant ironically or as a provocation isn't clear), while the biblically-minded ending shoots for profound but lands as simply annoying. “What’s the point?” seems like the laziest line of film criticism, but Club Zero genuinely offers up no reason to care about any of it – a decorative plate in search of a good meal.
Club Zero was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch