Jessica Hausner is the Austrian director whose elegant, refrigerated style has made her a Cannes favourite and her 2009 film Lourdes, about the ordinary world of miracles, is a 21st-century classic. But her recent move to English-language movies has resulted in some nebulous work in the shape of her 2019 picture Little Joe, and so it has proved again with this exasperating and baffling movie.
Club Zero is a strenuous, pointless non-satire which fails to say anything of value about its ostensible subjects: body image, eating disorders and western overconsumption. The “trigger warning” at the beginning of the film about these issues is fatuous, whether intended ironically or not. The deadpan mannerisms are glib, the line readings are torpid in the wrong way and the laborious drama leads us round and round and round like an Escher staircase. But it is certainly well shot by Martin Gschlacht and punctiliously designed by Beck Rainford.
The scene is an exclusive private school for teens from wealthy families, many of whom are expats; it appears to be in the UK, judging by the home-life scenes, but could as well be in Munich or Lille. At all events, teaching is in English. The pupils themselves, in their uniform of yellow T-shirt and shorts, mostly speak in an upper-middle-class vocal-fry drone; the principal Ms Dorset (Sidse Babett Knudsen) prides herself on the school’s dynamic, forward-thinking attitudes.
Dorset has recently hired a charismatic new teacher called Ms Novak (Mia Wasikowska), who markets her own brand of healthy tea and runs a course in Conscious Eating; this is a study in mindfulness, meditation and focused thought directed at cutting down the wasteful and damaging way we gorge on processed foods. Pupils can get course credits for what appears to be a pretty undemanding discipline and one boy might even qualify for a free scholarship in the following year. Ms Novak’s evangelical passion for the subject casts a spell over the five pupils in her class. And then she tells them they are to be the privileged secret few who will form the nucleus of her revolutionary Club Zero, young people who will survive on no food at all; a quietly fanatical Jonestown cult existing in plain sight.
There have been movies recently that have dealt audaciously and satirically with the sexual politics of eating disorders, such as Ruth Paxton’s A Banquet and Sebastián Lelio’s The Wonder, but they had a clarity and force that Club Zero doesn’t. For all its icy formal control, there is a lack of rigour in its thinking and narrative threads about sexual impropriety lead nowhere. Moreover there are cliches: there needs to be a screenwriting ban on “Mandarin classes” to indicate overworked schoolkids with overambitious parents.
The film seems to be mocking obviously absurd ideas; essentially it is pointing out imaginary fish in a made-up barrel and saying that these fictional fish deserve to be shot, and also that the people aiming guns at them are uptight and stupid as well. No one actually says the words “bulimia” and “anorexia” out loud, and it is not clear if avoiding these obvious terms is an artistic choice, a comment on denial, or just a way of skirting the obvious plot problem: the fact that today’s clued-up young people would be aware of the problems long before Ms Novak tried inducting them into her bizarre movement. And when Ms Novak condemns overconsumption and greed … well, it’s not immediately clear that these ideas are wrong or that they deserve to be satirically escalated into obviously grotesque self-harm. It’s another miss from this otherwise very talented film-maker.