Cannes 2023: Club Zero: Disgustingly Strong Contender for the Palme d’Or by Jessica Hausner
How Would You Like Your Zero Calories Cooked?
Yet another teenager-centric film at Cannes this year! So far in competition, Club Zero is the fourth one, following Monster, Le Retour, and Four Daughters. Austrian writer-director Jessica Hausner has previously had success at Cannes with Little Joe in 2019 (best actress award for Emily Beecham). While Club Zero is far from my favourite in competition, objectively speaking it is the most Cannes-proof film so far, and the one closest to jury president Ruben Östlund’s sensibility. Club Zero is a bizarre, wry comedy with deadpan humour right up Östlund’s alley. And yes: it involves a central puking scene, but probably one-upping Östlund’s own work (SPOILER ALERT it involves reingestion, would this be a cinematic first here?)
Club Zero stars Mia Wasikowska as Miss Novak, an idiosyncratic nutrition teacher at an expensive, progressive boarding school in an unnamed country, presumably England. Miss Novak is a new-agey teacher fond of meditation, ostensibly trying to inculcate healthy, ethical eating via a school course called Conscientious Eating. It gradually becomes clear Miss Novak is a starvation fanatic, a zealot of reducing food consumption, a prophet of living on light (as in photosynthesis) thereby achieving salvation from unsustainable consumption, capitalism, parental control, social norms, received ideas, you name it. Pretty much any trite buzzword is fit for purpose in this parroted discourse – reduce income inequality and vanquish capitalism by not spending money on food because eating is really just an indoctrination, what’s not to like?- and by the time the catastrophic effects of this faux preacher’s nonsense begin dawning on the parents of the kids taking her course, it is obviously too late.
Wasikowska is the right amount of repulsive, delusional and pitiable as the blatantly dodgy, delusional Miss Novak. Luckily, it is obvious to the audience that she is the embodiment, metaphorically, of “full of shit” (for in the literal sense she purports to be on zero food), otherwise one would worry about our collective sanity. The clueless parents grasping on to rational explanations attribute her unwavering brainwashing to her being lonely and too attached to their children and while her absurd, irritating phoniness is obvious go the viewer it is nevertheless a highly seductive outlet for teenage angst. The only one who sees through Miss Novak’s shenanigans is the mother of boy called Ben – importantly, the only non-wealthy, down-to-earth, ‘normal’ character, for the rest of the cartoonish progenitors all exist in a Goop-like universe.
I genuinely hoped during the screening that no one in the audience had teenage relatives affected by anorexia, bulimia, indoctrination and the like. While on paper the plot may sound like a fantastical, over the top premise, the film screened barely a couple of weeks after the dismantling of a starvation cult in Kenya which claimed hundreds of lives. So while we politely cringe and quietly chuckle in the comfort of the Cannes theatre, the knowledge that this caricature of brainwashing, this lecture in Set up Your Own Cult 101 is actually something that happens is real life is ever-present and strengthens the stomach-churning effect of the overall concoction.
Club Zero is a highly stylised, boxy-looking film mostly confined within the grounds of the modernist boarding school and the students’ plush homes (except the aforementioned lower-class Ben). While the small class of students enrolled in the Conscientious Nutrition course is the ostensible victim of Miss Novak’s grooming, the overarching joke here is on the caricatural parents. Reasoning with an opinionated teenager is a zero-sum game, as the films in the official selection have been hammering home, and the parents are gradually drawn into the emotional blackmail game of the starving, starry-eyed teenagers. Even after Miss Novak is dismissed, the newly initiated members of Club Zero (a secretive association of humans surviving without eating any food) are at her beck and call, so much so that by the end her victims’ parents are scrambling to reinstate her in order to understand the draw she exerted her charges. The slippery slope of emotional manipulation and the ease of ideologically indoctrinating vulnerable adolescents are the crux of Club Zero. Abandon all common sense, ye who enter here, for the final scene delivers yet another punch in the words of Elsa Zylberstein’s proto-anorexic mother character: “Maybe we parents should also try this in order to understand them…”
While the message is close to Four Daughters’ study of the process of Islamist radicalisation of vulnerable youth, Club Zero’s wry cynicism could not be any further from the former’s pure emotion. These are the formal opposites of the same coin and it would be interesting to see which one fares better with the jury, the gushy or the warped.