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film review

Club Zero

Classification: N/A; 110 minutes

Directed by Jessica Hausner

Written by Jessica Hausner and Géraldine Bajard

Starring Mia Wasikowska, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Amanda Lawrence

Opens March 29 in theatres

Queasy. That’s how Club Zero, the eating-disorder thriller from director/co-writer Jessica Hausner, makes you feel as you watch Miss Novak (Mia Wasikowska), the new nutrition teacher at a pricey British boarding school, gradually convince a select group of students that they don’t need food.

Or should I say a selected group? Like every successful cult leader, Miss Novak knows how to spot the most vulnerable and neediest kids, even in a school as fraught as the Talent Campus, an expensive dumping ground for the offspring of demanding but distracted international parents with the passive/aggressive motto, “There’s more in you.”

Each of her students, though already thin, has an ostensible reason for joining her “conscious eating” class. Fred (Luke Barker), a dancer, hopes to wean himself from insulin. Elsa (Ksenia Devriendt), the It girl, wants to reduce her (non-existent) body fat. Ragna (Florence Baker) is eager to improve her performance on the trampoline. Helen (Gwen Currant) is desperate to save the planet. Ben (Samuel D. Anderson) needs an easy A to keep his scholarship.

But Miss Novak senses – and exploits – their true reasons. Fred’s parents don’t know what to do with him; Elsa is already bulimic, with the tacit permission of her glamorous mother; Ragna is rebelling against her hippie-chic parents; Ben will do anything to fit in. In other words, they’re teenagers, desperate to become someone, anyone else.

Open this photo in gallery:

A scene from the new film Club Zero, Directed by Jessica Hausner.Handout

Step by step, Miss Novak bends them toward her (un)reality: First, slow down to savour every bite. Then, you see, you need far fewer bites to be satisfied. Soon, oho, perhaps you are one of the few visionaries who understand that consumer culture and even science are lying to you – you don’t need to eat at all. As their skin turns sallow and their eyes hollow out, she murmurs every line in the cult-leader playbook. “It frightens people when you question their truth.” “I’m here to save you.” “Your parents don’t see you the way you really are.” “Keep this strictly confidential. Your families and fellow students won’t understand. They’ll try to weaken your resolve.” (The end credits reassure us that none of the actors lost weight to make the film.)

Club Zero isn’t just a warning against anorexia and social media’s ideation of “thinspiration.” It also meets our current moment, where anxious people, uncertain of their status in the present and their very existence in the future, are glomming onto charismatic pseudo-saviours who claim to have the answers, and who insist that anyone who rejects those answers is in denial of, or not superior enough to see, “the real truth.”

Hausner is Austrian; Club Zero, her second film in English (her first was Little Joe, a thriller about evil plants), is itself a polyglot, an Austria/Britain/France/Denmark co-production, which Hausner exploits to create an unsettling, anywhere-yet-nowhere tone. She keeps her camera high and still, dispassionately observing her characters, who speak in a flat affect. Her colour palette is deliberately jarring – the school uniform, with its yellow polo shirts, oversized khaki culottes and blue knee socks, is particularly hideous – and the percussive score, by Markus Binder, is nerve-jangling.

Also unnerving is that much of what Miss Novak says isn’t wrong: Rampant consumerism and unchecked industrial food production do contribute to Earth’s destruction; most of us should eat more mindfully. So we slip and slide to keep our footing when she takes it to extremes.

Where the film is less successful, however, is in making us understand what Miss Novak’s endgame is. For what god or ideal of purity is she leading these kids to their deaths? Hausner is clearly talented, and I’m all for a film without easy answers. But I wish this one was less insistently opaque.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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