Jessica Hausner’s drama about a teacher who begins a troubling diet club at an elite high school is a poorly-judged slog to sit through.
In 2009 Jessica Hausner presented Lourdes at the Venice Film Festival – a film about the French town which has become a revered sight of pilgrimage for many Catholics after visions of the Virgin Mary supposedly appeared in 1858. For what it’s worth, my Catholic high school ran an annual trip there for the more devout students. I never went. It seems fair to suggest Hausner has returned to the overarching theme of faith in her sixth feature, albeit with the curious allegorical framing of a disordered eating club which is formed at an elite high school, where new teacher Miss Novak (Mia Wasikowska) is installed to teach the pupils about “conscious eating”.
While Novak claims the practice of conscious eating has myriad benefits – including reducing carbon emissions, improving general health, and kickstarting the body into auto-cleansing – the reality is that her students are being encouraged to restrict their diet, eventually to the point they cannot eat at all. A couple of pupils quickly bow out, but five stick around: Ragna (Florence Baker) wants to be better at trampoline, and her parents have already encouraged her to eat less; Elsa (Ksenia Devriendt) is inspired by her mother’s own eating disorder; Fred (Luke Barker) is a promising dancer whose absent parents find him perpetually disappointing, and Ben (Samuel D Anderson) can get extra credit by attending the class, which he needs for his scholarship.
This group are susceptible to Novak’s preaching, which frames not eating as a control issue. She tells them eventually they will reach a point where they no longer need to eat at all, thereby becoming a part of ‘Club Zero’. For whatever reason, the other adults and students in their orbit seem ambivalent, barely noticing the shrinking appearance of the already thin group, who start to appear gaunt and jaundiced.
Perhaps Hausner intends for Club Zero to be a comment on the susceptibility of young, vulnerable people into cults, whereby dangerous behaviour is the admission cost of feeling like they belong. Or perhaps the film is another mediation on faith – we see Novak praying to a small shrine, mumbling on about her mission, and the final act implies a sort of ascension for the students that truly commit to starvation. It’s a clumsy metaphor though, not least because thin has always been in, and it’s somewhat telling that all the students are already slim to begin with, which insidiously reenforces the idea that only thin people can have eating disorders – a suggestion which further stigmatises fat people. Here, thinness is next to Godliness.
Most insulting of all is the suggestion that the kinship these students find in their teacher – who also hints at a physical attraction to Fred – ultimately brings them the happiness they so crave, freeing them from their concerned parents. Novak is a sort of pied piper, leading the teenagers to ruin, though her motivations remain unclear even at the film’s close. While it would be unfair to suggest Hausner is condoning Novak’s actions, there is a sort of nihilistic glibness about the film which leaves a sour taste. Teamed with the film’s distracting, over-the-top sound design and a gaggle of performances that shoot for the stylised stuntedness of Yorgos Lanthimos and never reach those heights, Club Zero fails to offer anything that its predecessors didn’t provide in more succinct and thoughtful ways.
Published 23 May 2023