Following its premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, indoctrination satire 'Club Zero' is out in cinemas and is a mixed bag, one that nevertheless exudes a hypnotic pull.
For her second English-language film after 2019’s Little Joe, Austrian filmmaker Jessica Hausner orchestrates an eerie Pied Piper story that satirizes cult behaviour and explores not only the dangers of organized faith but also the pitfalls of outsourcing educational and parental responsibilities. However, much like Little Joe, the content frustratingly meanders to a fizzle, when it should have administered a proper gut punch.
Club Zero follows a new teacher who has been recruited by an elite boarding school. The progressive institution has hired Miss Novak (Mia Wasikowska) to instruct the rather impressionable students on the concept of “Conscious Eating”, a planet-benefitting and mental health-promoting practice.
The nutritionist guru urges her students to eat less and ultimately reject food altogether. The more zealous students are rewarded by being admitted into her secret diet club, the titular Club Zero...
There’s much to admire about this tragicomic commentary on conformity, our modern obsession with body image, nutritionary fads and, on a wider scope, western overconsumption. The cast make the absolute most of Hausner’s directing style, an icy and formal command which encourages a knowingly mannered approach to line readings. Wasikowska excels as the calm, eerily passive-aggressive Miss Novak, while the kids (Ksenia Devriendt, Gwen Currant, Florence Baker, Luke Barker and Samuel D Anderson) all convince with their stilted, zombie-like speech patterns.
The subtly disturbing percussive score by Markus Binder also brilliantly complements the immaculately colour-coded fixtures and the symmetrical compositions which at times recall Wes Anderson’s sets.
For all these pull factors, it’s a real shame that the style and concept are underserved by Hausner and Géraldine Bajard’s script, which is - somewhat aptly - a bit too undernourished.
We get where it’s going, about how modern disinformation thrives when packaged in the right way, leading to a cult of personality. There simply isn’t much more to it than that and Club Zero is undone by some of its narrative cul-de-sacs and its overall abstemiousness. With topical themes this weighty and which easily lend themselves to something properly chilling, Hausner’s restraint does make you wonder what filmmakers like Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, Poor Things), Lucile Hadžihalilović (Evolution) or Carol Morley (The Falling) could have done with the material.
Certainly, this isn’t a deadpan satire aiming to disgust, and Club Zero does exude an undeniably hypnotic prise. Hausner is provocative in her own unique way, and there is something to applaud in not choosing the outrageous route considering the topics addressed. Nor is the film glib at any point.
However, the “trigger warning” disclaimer at the start of the film - ironic or not - needed something more unpredictable, and substantially more corrosive.
Club Zero premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and has begun its European theatrical rollout.