Cannes 2023 Review: CLUB ZERO, Dieting Satire Hits Close to Home

Mia Wasikowska stars as a sinister nutrition coach in Jessica Hausner's new film.

Contributing Writer; New Jersey, USA (@fuzzyyarns)
Cannes 2023 Review: CLUB ZERO, Dieting Satire Hits Close to Home
Who among us has not sought to examine our eating habits in the interest of being healthier or losing a few pounds here and there?
As is the wont of our keenest satires, Austrian auteur Jessica Hausner starts her dieting-gone-awry tale innocuously enough, with a perfectly reasonable premise. Club Zero introduces us to a program called “conscious eating” for teenage school kids in order to engender a healthier eating philosophy.
This wouldn’t be out of place in a regular school or corporate workplace either, with “mindful” or a similar adjective being substituted for “conscious”. It is the extreme lengths to which Hausner pushes this premise that gives her new Cannes Competition title its teeth and resonance.
Working once again in the English language after 2019's Little Joe, Hausner calls upon Australian star Mia Wasikowska to headline Club Zero as a new teacher, Miss Novak, hired at an upscale school that primarily counts the children of wealthy parents among its student population. She was, for good measure, recommended by an affluent parent of one of the kids. Class divisions are definitely one of the investigative priorities of Hausner’s satire.
Despite Wasikowska’s presence in the lead role, Club Zero is actually an ensemble film and it could be said that the four primary kids who take Miss Novak’s dieting class are in actual fact the leads. They are teenagers Elsa (Kesnia Devriendt), Fred (Luke Barker), Ragna (Florence Baker) and Ben (Samuel D Anderson).
The first three are of an elevated economic status, with Ben being from a more humble background. The initial classes have two kids of color too but Hausner has them reject Miss Novak’s class immediately while only the white kids continue, perhaps to signal that they could see through Miss Novak’s bullshit.
Miss Novak’s classes begin with instructions that are sensible enough: no random snacks, take smaller portions at mealtime, and eat “consciously.” That is, don’t hog it down, take time to chew and eat slowly; this way you’ll feel full for longer and with less food.
The interesting thing about Club Zero is that any of the advice Miss Novak offers in the first 45 minutes of the film wouldn’t be out of place in a gym bro YouTube video or any fitness tutorial. Soon, though, she introduces the nefarious titular concept, Club Zero, which seeks to make the act of eating itself obsolete, positing that, it is in fact an unnecessary activity. This is where we start to see the extreme nature of her approach, which begins to have real-world ramifications among the kids.
Fred, who is a ballet dancer, loses focus and can’t seem to dance well anywhere. Soon, he looks completely emaciated, only a mass of ribs and bones. Ragna, who is a trampoline gymnast, is deemed too light to even perform by her gym teacher. The parents of all these kids raise alarm and we get extended sequences of the horrified parents first begging and then forcing their kids to eat something.
Even among the four classmates, suspicions start brewing about which of them is cheating on the diet. They bully and gaslight each other, and resort to bulimia to fulfill the conditions of the diet.
There is a lot packed into Club Zero which some viewers might find disconcerting. Alongside the dieting satire, it also seems to make commentary on cult figures who are able to make impressionable young minds blindly follow them. It also has an inappropriate teacher-pupil storyline when Miss Novak and Fred start seeing each other. This, added to the class commentary already baked into the film, might make it seem overstuffed and all over the place, but Hausner’s firm hand guides us through these crisscrossing threads to a sobering final narrative destination, though what her actual thematic point is a bit muddy.
Still, Club Zero is a film well worth watching, not least because of Hausner’s formal accomplishment. Hausner fashions an immensely sophisticated mis-en-scene, the framing and blocking and arrangement of people and objects within the frame showing exactitude we expect from the films of Wes Anderson or the like. It is entirely clear that every single element of the frame has been rigorously and precisely chosen, so it is a pleasure to surrender yourself to the hands of a confident storyteller.
Likewise, the set design and costume design is meticulous, and furthers the theme of extreme control inherent in the storyline. The school uniforms of the main kids are especially striking: loose yellow t-shirts and baggy khaki shorts. The film just overall has a singular and distinctive look. 
Also pleasurable is the clarity of Hausner’s storytelling and screenplay construction. Every scene is carefully written to further one theme or storyline or another and all the characters, including the parents of the kids, are folded into the narrative judiciously to give everyone a role to play, and there are no extraneous characters or loose ends.
Eventually, people’s reaction to Club Zero will depend upon how discomforting they find the film’s more extreme elements. An extremely graphic scene late in the film, involving Elsa and eating, is truly stomach-churning and had the audience groaning loudly. We won’t spoil it for you but be warned, don’t eat before watching that scene, or else you might feel nauseous after that outrageous sequence. It is sure to be a buzz-worthy and much-discussed moment.
Club Zero might hit close to home for many viewers as they reflect on their own eating habits and the price they are willing to pay to achieve their goals.
Club Zero premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.
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CannesJessica HausnerMia Wasikowska

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