If nothing else, every new Jessica Hausner film makes an increasingly undeniable case that no other narrative director is more skeptical of — or even hostile towards — the social institutions into which people entrust their faith. Her first and still only great movie confronted that subject head-on by telling the story of a wheelchair-bound woman whose multiple sclerosis appears to be cured by a visit to the Catholic sanctuary of Lourdes. Alas, both of the contemporary-set films she’s made since focus on more distinctly modern sources of faith, and both of those films are undone by her distinctly modern failure to distinguish good faith from bad.
In 2019’s “Little Joe,” Hausner questioned the world’s growing reliance on pharmaceuticals with an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” riff that likened antidepressants to a dehumanizing alien force. With the equally glib but even less explicable “Club Zero,” she returns with a Pied Piper-inspired dark comedy about the potential dangers of placing too much confidence in our children’s school teachers. You know, the real villains of the 21st century.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making a film on that or any subject; much better ones have been mined from similar concerns, often in response to DeSantis-like despots who regard classrooms as the frontline of their fascist-minded culture war. But Hausner somehow manages to twist a wry satire of Instagram “wellness” and Gen Z’s zero-sum approach to the world’s problems into a seemingly inadvertent broadside against the very people she claims should be “the most respected members of society.”
It’s always been hard not to admire Hausner’s audacity, but this time around the boldness of her storytelling finally spills into trollish provocation. Sorry, I’m burying the lede: “Club Zero” is a movie about a new teacher at an English boarding school named Ms. Novak (played by a frighteningly self-convinced Mia Wasikowska), whose cult-like lesson plan hinges on convincing her students that food is actually bad for them. All food. “There’s more in you,” she tells her small clutch of teenage students, which proves to be the first step in manipulating them to put less into themselves.
Ms. Novak’s curriculum starts with “conscious eating,” which is a bit woo woo but otherwise sensible enough. Things quickly begin to escalate from there, however, as Ms. Novak casually preys upon her students’ personal insecurities in order to sell them on a plant-based “mono diet” and then a full-blown abstinence from all food. Did you know that hundreds, and possibly even thousands of people around the world have discovered the health benefits and general enlightenment that can be achieved by not eating? Yeah, they’re just keeping the secret to themselves because mainstream society isn’t ready for that kind of truth bomb.
The heightened reality of Hausner’s film — a stiff and angular dimension that evokes the dry giallo of a Peter Strickland film even before “The Duke of Burgundy” star Sidse Babett Knudsen shows up as the school headmistress — helps to disguise some of the more logical problems with this premise. Not only do the kids in Ms. Novak’s appear to have no other friends (it’s never implied they were selected for their insecurities), but they seem wholly uninterested in sex, social media, or any sort of engagement with the outside world, despite the fact that all of them own cell phones. From the pink varnish on the vending machine at school to the Lanthimos-like cruelty the characters use to shame each other into compliance, every detail in “Club Zero” is glazed with the self-insistent mirth of an unfunny satire that bites off a whole lot more than it’s willing to chew.
Along with the percussive twang of Markus Binder’s score, which supports almost every major beat in the movie with an extra comic pop, the two-tone surreality of Hausner’s set and costume design also works to ensure that impressionable audiences don’t take “Club Zero” too literally. The film is still destined to be labeled as “dangerous,” but its various buffers and backstops start to become all the more important once it begins to seem like Ms. Novak might be onto something.
Fred (Luke Barker), the shy ballet dancer whose mom and dad work in Ghana, suddenly moves with newfound grace. Elsa (Ksenia Devriendt), the bulimic girl whose rich parents feel more typical of the film’s student body, develops a new level of confidence. The scholarship kid’s grades go up, the gymnast is able to jump higher on the trampoline, and the over-involved parents who found Ms. Novak on the internet are happy enough with the results of her class — at least until something wholly unrelated triggers a sudden come-to-Jesus moment.
A parent herself, Hausner is clearly being critical of the conditional involvement that all of these busy moms and dads take in their children’s lives, but she’s far more compelled by the mind-altering effect that certain institutions can have on people. By acknowledging the ridiculousness of Ms. Novak’s curriculum at the same time as it underscores the newfound sense of personal control her students derive from their collective eating disorder (which is horrifying, and never funny enough to justify turning it into a joke), “Club Zero” is free to take cheap shots at the supposed groupthink of youth culture without even bothering to identify its target.
I suppose, in spite of the faux-timelessness of its aesthetic, that “Club Zero” could be justified as a modern fairy tale about a world in which radicalization is threatening to become a new requirement of personal identity, but doing so would require you to ignore that self-denial is a trope as old as religion itself. It would also distract from the reality of a movie that doesn’t have any idea of where to place its blame. Are overworked parents the problem? Are school teachers brainwashing our kids? Or are today’s uncompromisingly progressive teens at unique risk of having their ideals get weaponized against them? None of these things are mutually exclusive, but all of them are poorly articulated here.
It’s one thing for Hausner to question religion, which has been responsible for all manner of sins over the centuries, but antidepressants — and now educators — feel like cynical targets for a filmmaker desperate to undermine anything that might help people better prepare themselves for the difficulties of a godless world. I want to have faith that I’m misreading Hausner’s intentions, and possibly not for the first time, but I’m getting pretty exhausted by the lack of faith she seems to have in everyone else.
“Club Zero” premiered in Competition at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.