Cannes 2023: Finding the Truth in Jessica Hausner's Film 'Club Zero'
by Alex Billington
May 22, 2023
To believe in Club Zero, you must accept that your truth is not the right truth. The truth you knew before is no longer the truth. And you must have faith that you can achieve what you once thought was not possible. This is the way of Club Zero. Don't question it, just accept it, believe in it… Austrian film director Jessica Hausner returns to the 2023 Cannes Film Festival with a new film titled Club Zero, an intriguing thriller about a group of students who join a special program studying with Ms. Novak. She introduces a concept to them called "Conscious Eating" – which they learn is about taking the time to slow down, think about, and closely observe what they are eating, so that they'll eat less, become healthier, more energized, and perhaps save the world in the process (there's just too much eating going on). The students are weary at first, but quickly take to her ideas and slowly come to believe fully in her conscious eating concept. It is absolutely a commentary on religion and cults and brainwashing, but what else is this film digging into beyond just that?
Club Zero's screenplay is written by Jessica Hausner & Géraldine Bajard, with Hausner directing her sixth feature film. In this clever film, Mia Wasikowska stars as Ms. Novak, who is recruited by an elite boarding school for teenage kids of very wealthy parents. The focus is mainly on a group of around 5 or 6 students, who spend time learning directly with Novak. Each one is in it for different reasons, whether it be: fighting back against climate change, making a difference for the planet and the population, getting necessary credits for a scholarship, or simply for gaining better self-control (for losing weight / not over-eating, etc). As the story plays out, the audience also starts to realize this is all a bit crazy – she pushes them further with simple, clear, easy-to-understand reasoning to eat less and less. Soon they're barely eating only one piece of potato at lunch, and refusing dinner entirely. What is all this for? Where is leading them? Well, there are some people who make it into the special "Club Zero", of course. But the mystery of what this film is really commenting on is one of its big flaws. It's not that clear by the end, and it's not so great at making its point.
Hausner decides to go with a deadpan vibe and minimalistic choices for the cinematography and set design. She uses very rudimentary pastel colors throughout, linking the clothes they wear to the walls in the rooms. The funkiest choice in this is the score, an extremely percussive and jaunty creation by composer Markus Binder (there was a similar kind of score in her last film Little Joe). The score is so loud it gave me some real jumps when it slams into the scene a few times. Hausner's directorial decisions throughout don't always work well. It's borderline cynical and the pacing starts to get tedious half-way through.. Is it fun to watch these teens fall for this "conscious" lifestyle? Not really. The story is pretty much Yorgos Lanthimos-style screwiness meant to toy with and prod viewers, and I think will piss most people off when they watch it. It's also so extremely dead pan that it's hard to sit with. I'm still processing the film as is I write this. Does it all come together? Not really. But does it make you stop & think? Definitely. It does not stick the landing by the end, unfortunately, however I still think it's super juicy cinema and prickly provocative storytelling anyway.
The strangest question with this film is about the "conscious eating" concept. It's discussed throughout in a way where it's almost making fun of liberal ideas in our modern world. The way the kids support it because it is better for the planet and could help slow down excessive consumerism is mocked by the filmmaking itself. The fact that they believe that eating less and less food will be beneficial for everyone forever is not something that can be scientifically possible, yet the way they believe so fully in it almost made me want to believe it is real, too. That seems to be Haunser's point. If you strip away all the modern commentary about climate change and processed foods and elitism, what's left is actually a screenplay mocking religion itself - specifically Christianity. Showing how can you convince anyone of anything, with the right reasoning and the right push. It even progresses so far with this concept to show that ostracizing Ms. Novak only leads to even worse problems with the kids. All of it is a metaphor, and shouldn't be taken as presented – however I don't think most people who watch this will pick up on that, which is the film's problem, not the audience's.
I have the same problems with Club Zero as I do with Hausner's last film before this titled Little Joe (from Cannes 2019). She wants to comment on certain ideas and discuss certain themes, but she can never really get these points across well in her filmmaking. She tends to bite off more than she can chew thematically, and doesn't know how to keep the messages at the forefront in the midst of all the performances and the wandering plot itself. Even the acting isn't that impressive either, which is a shame because this could be even spicier as a provocative film. There's not enough humor, the metaphors are too abstract, and the script meanders towards the end. I'm not sure how many will understand the reference to religion anyway, and even if they do pick up on it, there's too much to discuss about "well, sure, but that just doesn't work in this scene or that scene." And worst of all, it might make some people begin to question good ideas that actually are helpful for stopping climate change and making the world better. But let's not get into that convo today.
Alex's Cannes 2023 Rating: 7 out of 10
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