Review

Club Zero (2023) Review: Mia Wasikowska Led the Bold But Emotionally Distant Dark Satire

Can you live without eating?

That’s the question pondering over Jessica Hausner’s hugely divisive pitch-black satire Club Zero, which was nominated for Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival before it eventually lost to Anatomy of a Fall.

The titular club in question refers to the culmination of Miss Novak’s (Mia Wasikowska) unorthodox way of “conscious eating” approach. And that is, not eating anything at all by altering one’s mindset. A willpower, to be exact. But how is this even possible? Without food in the body, this would lead to malnutrition, and sickness and according to the info I gathered on the internet, a person can end up dead in 43 to 70 days.

Hausner, who also co-wrote her screenplay alongside Géraldine Bajard, challenges the viewers’ common perception about how we “live to eat/eat to live” daily routine. Here, the story wants to embrace the absurdity of a bizarre idea planted in the minds of five students at a posh elite boarding school, who are part of Miss Novak’s programme. These students include weight-conscious trampoline gymnast Ragna (Florence Baker), diabetic and non-binary ballet dancer Fred (Luke Barker), bulimic Elsa (Ksenia Devriendt), bespectacled Helen (Gwen Currant) and finally, there’s Ben (Samuel D Anderson), who often wolfing down his food as seen in the school cafeteria. Unlike others, he is a boy coming from a middle-class family in need of a scholarship.

Right from the get-go, Hausner imbues Club Zero with the look and feel of a Wes Anderson-style film — immaculate sets and the use of bright colours like yellow, green, red and orange. The characters, particularly Mia Wasikowska’s Miss Novak speak in a stilted manner. She behaves like one of those charismatic and seemingly well-meaning cult leaders capable of influencing her students’ mindsets. Well, not all of them since there were originally seven of them before the two sceptical students subsequently decided to pull out.

The students in "Club Zero" (2023)

Miss Novak’s teaching consists of eating less and mindfully too for longevity, improving health and even helping the environment. She also teaches them about adopting the plant-based mono diet, referring to eating one type of specific food at a time.

The story does keep me invested in Hausner’s metaphorical subtext about ideology, capitalism, environmental concerns and above all, challenging societal norms. The latter asks questions like the normalisation of food consumption doesn’t necessarily mean they are embedded as cold, hard facts. What if we can change the way we perceive things all the while? I get the intention that Hausner trying to convey here but as the film moves on, Club Zero gets progressively sillier with the monotonous pacing and eventually, an ambiguous finale that left me baffled.

One of the most controversial moments in Club Zero that prompted walkouts during the screening at the Cannes Film Festival revolves around the vomit-eating scene. Yes, you heard it right. A scene where one of the students induces vomit by sticking a finger inside the throat and then, ends up eating back whatever is thrown up earlier. It’s a gross-out moment that sure made me feel queasy watching the scene.

The last time I saw Mia Wasikowska in a movie was the ill-fated Devil All the Time, even though she did appear in two subsequent films including Bergman Island and Blueback. She does a good job playing a manipulative cult-like nutrition educator, Miss Novak while most of the younger cast, notably newcomer Ksenia Devriendt as Elsa provide equally solid support.

The production design is top-notch and so does Martin Gschlacht’s elegantly composed cinematography. Markus Binder’s percussion-centric score is particularly a standout here, utilising the minimalist approach of drumbeats that complements well with the peculiar setting of the film.