Club Zero, the Black Comedy About a Teen Cult Who Don’t Eat

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Club Zero, 2023
Club Zero, 2023(Film still)

Jessica Hausner’s new film Club Zero – which premiered at Cannes yesterday – is a darkly comic take on wellness, privilege, and eating disorders

The premise for Jessica Hausner’s new film Club Zero is as simple as it is audacious. At an international boarding school whose world hovers just outside of our own, nutritional guru Miss Novak (Mia Wasikowska) starts a new class instructing kids in the wonders of so-called ‘conscious eating’. Before long they’re under her spell, and she leads them down some dark avenues of illogic before letting slip the existence of ‘Club Zero’, an alleged secret society of people who eat nothing at all – and lead miraculously long, cancer-free lives.

It’s one of those ideas, Buñuelian in its ingenuity, that is so wild you just hope the director doesn’t get in the way of it, and thankfully Hausner, who has proved herself a dab hand at quietly subversive sci-fi (Little Joe) and period drama (Amour Fou) before, keeps the focus sharp throughout.

Novak is the kind of wellness ghoul we’re accustomed to seeing more and more of these days, a Goop-adjacent fanatic who does a lucrative sideline in ‘fasting teas’ that she offloads on to the principal (Sidse Babett Knudsen, sporting a fabulous wardrobe). She is hired on a nod from the parents’ board, with one faux-solicitous dad in particular taking credit for securing her services. “It’s so important we teach our kids to reduce consumption,” he says, before the camera zooms out to reveal a vast, minimalist home stuffed with expensive objets d’art, lawn sprinklers pumping away outside.

Among the questions Hausner poses with her film is, why are the wealthy so credulous when it comes to this kind of stuff? Is it a sort of subliminal self-flagellation, an act of ritual atonement for the insanely privileged? Or is it these kids are merely, as one initially sceptical student observes, that they are all desperate “to be seen”? In one eerie monologue, one of Miss Novak’s most zealous disciples, Elsa (Ksenia Devriendt), claims she could will her own mother’s death from cancer if she wished it, a blackly comic nod to the nauseating trend among the rich and famous to talk up the power of ‘manifesting’.

For a while, I wondered if the film would struggle to get out from under its central conceit, and some of the characters felt a little undercooked: scholarship student Ben, an outsider in the group due to his modest family background, could have been further developed to explore the ways in which the ethics of consumption interact with class. And Miss Novak herself is so robotic I did wonder how she was able to win over her flock so easily – a problem, in a film that needs a charismatic force at its centre.

But Hausner keeps the satire layered in ways that, say, last year’s Palme d’Or winner Triangle of Sadness wasn’t. (It will be interesting to see what that film’s director – and this year's head judge – Ruben Östlund makes of Club Zero.) There is something in the idea, too, that resonates beyond its basic shock value. Miss Novak claims to be part of Club Zero already, which means that she is eating in secret – which means she has a private, self-hating side to go with her pious public persona, a trait that rings true to our social media-obsessed moment. (The kids in the film are curiously offline, for the most part.)

At its heart, Club Zero may be a cautionary tale on the dangers of a society that puts its faith in quack cures and pseudoscience. It’s the question of faith that Hausner returns to at the end of the film, as she devises an audacious finale for this scabrous black comedy, a stick of dynamite handled with care.