Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Club Zero’ Devours its Members

Director: Jessica Hausner
Writers: Jessica Hausner, Géraldine Bajard
Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Amir El-Masry

Synopsis: A teacher takes a job at an elite school and forms a strong bond with five students – a relationship that eventually takes a dangerous turn.

Jessica Hausner distrusts every institution dedicated to “caregiving, comfort, and devotion.” Her targets have ranged from the Catholic Church and faith healing in Lourdes, the devouring service industry in Hotel, charismatic poet-philosophers in Amour Fou, nature, pharmaceuticals, and motherhood in Little Joe. Her first feature, Lovely Rita, was a violently nihilistic coming-of-age story. Rita is abused by her Catholic School peers. She deals with religious fervor at home with her overly devout mother. After unsuccessfully trying to seduce an older man, she turns her attention to a just pubescent boy — the only person who makes her feel special. Conceptually, Lovely Rita is a Rosetta Stone to unlock Hausner’s cinema of mistrust and anxiety.

Club Zero has Hausner home in on the exclusive private school: “good parents,” “bad parents,” and the abnegation of responsibility they have for their own actions and children. The school is for gifted students — but often their gifts are nebulous. It is prestigious and prestige is a business. It is run by an immaculately groomed woman, Miss Dorset (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who is catering specifically to the rich parents of the “sensitive children” — the next generation who will inherit whatever is theirs by dent of cultural and class endorsement.

When wealthy parents decide that clean eating should be a course offered on the curriculum, they prime their discontented teens to be seduced into a cult run by the enigmatic Miss Novak (Mia Wasikowska). She seeks out her targets carefully. At first, she introduces them to the idea that conscious eating is a remedy for consumerist wastefulness, that it is a solution to environmental destruction. Conscious eating is a form of self control which provides mental clarity. Disciplining the body will enhance physical agility. Radiant beauty is paired with a body no longer filled with toxins. All negative energy will be expelled on a cellular level.

Miss Novak identifies each of their needs. Ragna (Florence Barker) is the child of liberal bohemians (Lukas Turtur and Keeley Forsyth). They are both artists of some kind and also desperate to be the “cool parents.” Ragna is embittered because for all their doting, they are primarily self satisfied. Look what a good example they set with their communal largesse. With their artisan house, cursory questions, and nutrient rich menu, they believe the job of parenting Ragna is complete. Ragna is a competitive trampoliner who secretly fears she is ugly and overweight. Resentment hangs over her blue-streaked head of hair. 

Elsa (Ksenia Devriendt) is the school beauty and Queen Bee. She already has an eating disorder quietly encouraged by her lonely trophy wife mother (Elsa Zylberstein). Her father (Mathieu Demy) is a high-level finance man. He is the bullish bully who refuses to indulge Elsa’s or his wife’s behavior. He has his servants cook elaborate feasts and refuses to let either of the women go until they have eaten to his satisfaction. Greed is good. Pleasure is his just desserts. Elsa is a concert pianist in training. She already metaphorically and literally regurgitates the lessons both her parents have taught. Be perfect, pretty, and powerful.

Ben Benedict (Samuel D. Anderson) is an intellectual scholarship student. Of all the participants in Miss Novak’s class, he is the skeptic. He knows Miss Novak is using pseudoscience mixed with just enough objective evidence to promote her radically restricted diet. His modest background sets him apart from the beautiful people. Although he projects insouciance based on his high grades and academic performance, he has an unrequited crush on Elsa. He is also the roommate of Miss Novak’s most psychologically fragile student — Fred (Luke Barker).

Fred is training to be a classical dancer. He is lithe, fluid, and obsessed with his image. He needs to be seen. His white savior Ghana based NGO parents (Camilla Rutherford and Sam Hoare) have summarily dumped him as a boarding student. For reasons he can’t process he is rejected while they favor his much younger brother. Every attempt he makes to communicate with them is cut short. They barely feign interest in his progress and circumvent every request that he be able to visit them with weak excuses. “The climate is too much for him his delicate skin would burn,” or “It is not a good time to arrive during Seth’s development.”

Fred has a dance instructor who is trying to guide him. Yet, as soon as Miss Novak pays him motherly attention, he rejects him as a jealous gatekeeper who refuses to allow him to experience what he must to become an artiste. A simple pass to allow him to go to an Opera.

Finally, there is the environmental activist, Helen (Gwen Currant), whose parents think nothing of consuming fossil fuels as industrial manufacturers. They are antithetical to her stance as an eco-warrior.

With the exception of Ben’s unpretentious single mother (Amanda Lawrence), almost no one has done their due diligence in screening who comes into contact with their children. Miss Novak, a woman who prays to a mysterious icon for strength to carry out her purpose, was simply found via an internet advertisement. She used self-branded cleansing tea as a way into the school. Miss Novak is an invention of the cult which she serves or the cult of which she is the creator. She is an avatar of an omnipresent devourer – watching, waiting, and stalking. She is Lamia — one who preys on the children of others. Yet without the children, she is nothing.

Promising the children they will be purified, they instead develop Autophagia. Every step they take to become a member of Club Zero relies on primal rituals. Screams, shrieks, and vocal catharsis become a secret language. Common practices in tribal behavior, but also tactics used in indoctrination. There will be a cost, but the result is worth it.

Fred almost dies because he stopped taking his insulin. The arrival of his father at his bedside in the hospital is not because of genuine concern for his son, but because it is the expected gesture of a parent. It’s inconvenient. He once again entrusts Fred to the school; “Fred has always been a difficult child. I have to rely on you. Please take good care of our child.”

Hausner’s technical fingerprints are all over the work. An uncanny internally mid-century modern school with a queasy color palette. Bright yellow and royal purple clash against the clean modernity of Oxford’s Saint Catherine’s College (the key location standing in as the school). Choirs sing about being lifted up to something higher. The banners, statues, and medallions evoke a mixture of traditional pride and the aesthetics of dictatorial states. An elite school is already a battleground for supremacy. 

Similarly, whichever home space the audience encounters speaks to the privilege, or lack thereof, of the inhabitants. Hausner’s aestheticized absurdism is telegraphed via location and composition; expertly filmed by Martin Gschlacht who has a granular understanding of Beck Rainford’s purposive production design.

The audience is experiencing the euphoria of starving children and watching their bodies and minds collapse. Fred’s exam dance recital is glitter-soaked humiliation. A tacky ballet rendition of “Peter and the Wolf” by Rachmaninov. Conversely, Elsa’s piano recital is executed with embodied perfection, but a key spectator is not there to witness her. Ben has gone so far down the rabbit hole he rejects his mother’s ministrations as a form of control. He accuses her of offering him food as an unfair test of his love for her. Ragna’s furtive acquiescence to filling her belly which makes her temporarily an outcast, a failure, and a figure of disgust. Helen’s declaration that if people stop eating no one can starve because of poverty, while later scooping her school provided food into a waste bin with the others. There is no awareness that they are imbedded in late-stage capitalism and any act — mundane or seemingly gifted by manipulation will change anything in the economics of greed.

Eventually, Miss Dorset realizes that Miss Novak is a threat to the school and to her authority over the children. She ignored Miss Benedict’s concerns because her son was not a full fee-paying student. An opportunity to remove Miss Novak comes via alleged sexual impropriety with Fred. Something relayed to her because of one student’s anger at being rejected by another.

The all-powerful parent association meets and discusses the ethics of dismissing Miss Novak. The dark comedic tone belies the fact none of them want to take responsibility for endangering their offspring. The statement “We must not be lenient just because we brought Miss Novak into the school” is Hausner’s pugilistic condemnation of their hypocrisy. 

The removal of Miss Novak doesn’t halt the bizarre behavior of the teens. They were promised deliverance from all that ails them. Their bodies are no longer temples, they are traps. Never feeling “good enough” to be good, each teen forces their parents into stalemate. The parents have to deliver their genetic commodities to the now rightful owner. Body horror, vomiting, regurgitating the regurgitated as an anti-capitalist act. There is no boundary between sacred and profane for them in their delusional state. A version of God asks worshippers to take his body and eat it.  

Or perhaps what was delusional was expecting their children to do whatever they expected from them. Be pretty, do better, be smart, be less visible, stand out more, don’t be demanding, don’t prioritize their own desires. Survive high school group think and come out the other side as rational but extraordinary talents.

“We want to know why.” The parents ask a student.

“Isn’t it obvious?” She responds.

“I thought I did everything I could to support my teen, friend, lover…” is often the lament of those who discover a person who has erased themselves in some manner. “Why didn’t I see the signs?” Hausner’s Club Zero lights up the signs in a sickly neon. Many teens are searching for some kind of faith. Someone they can trust is looking over them. 

Jessica Hausner interviewed high school students before she wrote the script with Géraldine Bajard. They reported the effects of bullying and the weight of expectation on them while at school. Incidents of body dysmorphia, self-harm, disordered eating, and mental health crises among teens has statistically never been higher than it is currently. Youth suicides have increased by over sixty-percent since 2007. Underlying Hausner’s Vantablack satire is a material reality.

Jessica Hauser is often profoundly misconstrued. Perhaps some audiences will see Club Zero as too abject, too fetishizing, and too tonally uneven. Mostly it could be read as too pulchritudinous for a film filled with puke. How can something be so pretty-ugly? Club Zero is not favoring style over substance — which is the entire point Hausner is making. If only the members of Club Zero had something authentic to anchor them, they would no longer fall for falsehoods.

Grade: B+

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