Jessica Hausner doesn’t make it easy. The writer-director’s films are purposely, obstinately artificial, filled with stiff, mannered dialogue, and they all deal with the frailty of human existence and the limitations of our bodies. As a result, her body of work (no pun intended) can feel alienating and sterile, especially because of its focus on outsiders who all share the quality of being, er, mousy.
In Club Zero, the latest of these heroines, if that’s the right word, is Ms. Novak, a prim teacher with neatly bobbed hair and a quiet, awkward demeanor, who arrives at a school where she is taking up a position as a teacher of nutrition. In the film, which premiered this week at the Cannes Film Festival, it quickly becomes clear that Ms. Novak (played reservedly by Mia Wasikowska) has some, to put it mildly, rather original ideas about diet, as she immediately sets about teaching her pupils to radically cut down on food.
Novak’s theory is that students should practice “conscious eating,” in order to become aware of their food while chewing and digesting. Gradually, the five adolescent students taking this module start starving themselves, to the confusion and distress of their parents. All the while, Ms. Novak has the support of her head teacher, Mrs. Dorset, played by Sidse Babsett Knudsen. Indeed, the new teacher is seemingly recognised by all as a brave pioneer in her field, giving these early scenes a feeling of absurd unreality. This is a discomfiting kind of science-fiction, anchored in a timeless sort of era, like ours but at a weird, distancing remove.
It’s hard to convey just how unusual Hausner’s filmmaking is. The actors all seem to have been instructed to perform in a deliberately leaden way, with faltering speech patterns and an odd rhythm to the dialogue, which never quite hits contemporary beats. A close cousin to this style of performance is the work of Yorgos Lanthimos, another European director of disquieting high-concept dystopias—but Hausner goes further in heightening that unreality.
Unlike Lanthimos, whose wit is brazen and inviting, Hausner’s humor—such as it is—is arch and disconcerting, a sort of bizarre comedy of manners, like vaudeville written by an alien. On top of these peculiarities of performance, Hausner further weirds out her audience by devising absurdly stilted sets with extremely popping and unnatural colors—sickly greens and purples, bile yellows—and sparse decoration.
Elaborate costumes and unusual accessories come to complement those production values—one family in Club Zero eats with golden cutlery; outfits are unusual and buttoned-up, and seem to have been chosen to match bathroom tiles or a pair of cushions. On top of this, Hausner employs distracting camera movements, especially zoom, which call attention to themselves and which seem to work against a naturalistic style of filmmaking (establishing shots followed by close-ups) that would humanize these characters for us.
All of this makes her work irritating; there’s no other word for it. Her films make you feel hot with annoyance—and it may very well be that, for you personally, that annoyance never lets up over the course of the movie. But if you are, by great force of character, willing and able to let those instincts be overruled, there are pleasures to be had in what Hausner has to say about the human condition—about will-power, radicalisation, alienation, the creep of modernity into our psyche.
Like David Cronenberg, Hausner is interested in body horror, but for her, the horror comes not so much from gore or a sense of the abject, but from suggestion and the uncanny. That isn’t to say that a scene in Club Zero, where one of Novak’s pupils vomits up her dinner and then eats what she has regurgitated with a fork, isn’t predicated on gross-out. But the effect rendered is quite different, because of all the stylistic grounding that surrounds it. Here, it feels like watching a horribly real dream.
As Novak’s radical ideas spread, the students become more and more fervent in their following, and it’s clear that Hausner is talking about something cultish and religious in the way these people are converted to this seemingly insane cause. And yet, the movie isn’t so simple as to conclude that radicalization of the young is easy and dangerous; in fact, Hausner leaves open the very real possibility, within her film’s bizarre universe, that these children are right, and that humans in fact don’t need food to survive.
A line that comes back a few times in the film is to do with the idea of “being seen”: perhaps these children instinctively come to trust a person who really sees them, unlike their parents who don’t really consider them as full humans, but as extensions of themselves.
Viewers who stick with the maddening stylings of Club Zero will find some astonishing scenes, such as an extraordinary transition in which Novak and her gaggle of students—like a kind of fucked-up Dead Poets’ Society—walk into a picture frame in which a still photo becomes a moving landscape, even as it is a plainly stylised depiction, complete with blurry tree leaves and smudged sunlight.
What does this sleight-of-hand mean? Hausner isn’t interested in holding audiences by the hand, and it isn’t her duty to give easy answers. Instead, she offers us a vision, of jaundiced, depleted bodies made radiant, finding true communion with one another in a way that defies the comprehension of her own characters and perhaps our own. As in Hausner’s magisterial Lourdes, there is a sort of mystical quality to Club Zero, a hallowed kind of grace that fits awkwardly in this gleaming, unnatural world.
Club Zero’s depiction of eating disorders—one character is bulimic, and all of the students end up refusing food completely—will inevitably cause distress to some, and it must be said that the movie’s discourse on eating disorders per se is not sensitive. But really the idea of eating, or not eating, is not the text of Club Zero so much as a vehicle for telling a story about humanity; the subject of the film is absolutely not starvation itself, or disordered eating.
In using this framework, Hausner situates herself alongside such artists as Anna Rose Holmer (The Fits), investigating social contagion and individuals’ feeling of unbelonging in a hostile world. The film ends on a horrible, absurdist note—uncomprehending adults gathered around a table, like a deadpan Last Supper with no supper—that has a similar feeling to missing a step in the dark. What just happened?
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The Daily Beast