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As in response to criticism that his latest film, Botanical Horror Story Little Joeit was too opaque, according to Austrian director Jessica Hausner Club Zero a Cannes entrant as thin as a sock to the nose.
Indeed a modern retelling of that classic Central European folktale, The Pied Piper of Hamelinbut adorned with a few hip bells and whistles – and, like all of Hausner’s work, impeccably designed – this casts Mia Wasikowska as a grinning “nutrition teacher” who indoctrinates her students into a cult of disordered eating , at first preaching miraculous health and beneficial environment.
Elegant, yet subtle as a hammer to the head.
Place: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Launch: Mia Wasikowska, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Amir El-Masry, Elsa Zylberstein, Mathieu Demy, Ksenia Devriendt, Luke Barker, Florence Baker, Samuel D Anderson, Gwen Currant
Director: Jessica Hausner
Screenwriters: Jessica Hausner, Geraldine Baiard
1 hour and 49 minutes
The screenplay, by Hausner and his regular writing partner Geraldine Bajard, obviously has a number of worthy targets in its sights: the diet and wellness industry and its sinister influencers; distracted and sometimes hypocritical parents who do not see the signs of mental illness in their children; perhaps also the poor supervision offered in private schools; and the controversial “pro-ana” movement that promotes anorexia online. All that is fair game.
The problem here is that the satirical arrows don’t really land because the air is too thick with daytime wit and irony. Unfortunately, the most problematic component is the inexperience of the younger actors, many of whom are acting on screen for the first time and who have not been well directed. It doesn’t help that they have to deliver lines of often oddly worded dialogue in English, dialogue that sometimes looks like it has been translated from German by an AI interface. (An example: “We are extremely grateful for all the goodwill you show us.”)
This kind of non-naturalistic, borderline surreal environment can be achieved, for example, by filmmakers like Yorgos Lanthimos, say, or even Lars Von Trier on a good day. But it requires skilled artists, which Wasikowska and co-star Sidse Babett Knudsen thankfully can deliver here. But the breadth of the satire and tawdry desire to shock dull the film’s strengths.
There’s a scene where a teenager (Ksenia Devriendt) eats her own vomit that instantly elevates him to the Cannes art house hall of fame, alongside last year’s Palme d’Or winner Triangle of sadnesswhich in a strange way this resembles in spirit. Club Zero it will certainly have its supporters, on the Croisette and beyond, and who could not love the saturated colors of Tanja Hausner’s costumes and Beck Rainford’s chilling and austere scenography? But above all the clarity of vision found in his early works Crazy Love, Lourdes AND Hotels – does not flourish on the barren terrain of this film.
At least the script is cheap and relevant. We first meet new teacher Ms. Novak (Wasikowska, perhaps channeling the vaguely foreign accent of a Polish relative) on her first day teaching nutrition to a small class at a small educational institution called The Talent Campus. (Is this perhaps a Berlinale dig, running an educational course of the same name alongside its festival?) As the camera slowly follows from student to student (DP Martin Gschlacht’s stylized work is as perfect as ever), each teenager explains why they want to think more about what they eat. Nobody admits that they simply want to be thinner: this is not the Gen Z way. Instead, they want to improve their sports performance, for example, or consume food in a way that reduces the damage of the agricultural industry to the environment.
Using handy charts that look like they were made from cut out images of vintage food Good house cleaning magazines, Ms. Novak explains the risks of overeating and poor diet and suggests this clever trick (as they say in Instagram ads) to help manage hunger: mindful eating. Instead of swallowing your food, take a deep breath before each bite and chew slowly. Seems reasonable enough, but as with any cult, once Novak has her targets charmed and drawn into her circle, she keeps moving the goalposts. Next they should eat “plant-based monofoods” or food consisting of only one fruit or vegetable ingredient. She then tells the boys that the most dedicated and conscious eaters can join an elite secret society, Club Zero, which only admits those who eat absolutely no food.
The little lambs being led up the hill to this barren pasture of deadly purity are an assortment of stock teenage types. There is the beautiful and rich Elsa (Devriendt), who, as a teacher later notes, has always suffered from bulimia thanks to the example of her image-conscious bulimic mother (Elsa Zylberstein). Ragna (Florence Baker) has hipster parents (Lukas Turtur and Keely Forsyth) who don’t actively promote having an eating disorder as a lifestyle, but they do make jokes about her weight and suggest shedding a few pounds will help her with her competitive trampoline. Fred (Luke Barker), an aspiring dancer with a taste for guyliners, has a similar motivation to reduce his calorie intake, while Ben (Samuel D. Anderson), a boy from a much poorer background, needs the grade in class. to help him win a scholarship. He is the latest to be indoctrinated into Mrs. Novak’s clique of favorites, much to the despair of the sweet single mother (Amanda Lawrence), who has always loved to cook for her once grateful son.
Ms Novak’s motives are more obscure, although there are scenes where she prays in a homemade shrine to the ‘Holy Mother’, although judging by the iconography of the lotus flowers it doesn’t appear that this is the same female deity adored by Sylvie Testud in Hausner’s catholic-tastic Lourdes. Wasikowska – with her amused, intelligent eyes and wand-like posture (wearing a set of polos can do for that style of t-shirt what Gwyneth Paltrow did for them in The Royal Royal Tenenbaums — is rightfully mesmerizing. If the dialogue never explains why she started or became involved in this strange almost self-destructive religion, it is palpable that Mrs. Novak has her reasons for her. It’s just that she doesn’t tell us.
As the easily duped school principal, Mrs. Dorset, Knudsen doesn’t offer as much dimensionality to her character, but clearly she’s mostly there to be mocked, with her eye-catching purple prints and retro hairdo, with a roll on top like a smooth sausage hair. She is all for the mindful eating program at first, but then she loses interest and goes back to adding sugar and milk to Mrs. Novak’s special tea. That doesn’t mean she realizes how malign Novak’s influence on young people has become under her spell. When pressure mounts to fire the new teacher (the precise word used is “expelled”, which is what happens to students, not teachers – none of the British cast and crew thought to point this out on set?), the reasons for dismissal they are socializing with a student outside of school hours. But maybe it’s pointless to fret about the obscurity of characters who are little more than sock puppets for the author’s undercooked message.