Mia Wasikowska stars in Jessica Hausner’s restrained Competition drama

'Club Zero' c Coproduction Office

Source: Coproduction Office

‘Club Zero’

Dir: Jessica Hausner. Austria/UK/Germany/France/Denmark/Qatar. 2023. 109mins

A charismatic new teacher is recruited by an elite progressive boarding school, somewhere, we assume, in the UK, to instruct the students in “Conscious Eating”. Miss Novak (Mia Wasikowska) explains to her small class of impressionable teenagers that drastically reducing the amount of food they consume can have far-reaching benefits, for the planet, and for their own spiritual, mental and physical health. Dutifully, the kids reject their meals, but eat up Miss Novak’s ever-more extreme philosophy. The second English-language film from Jessica Hausner is a Pied Piper story for the era of the ‘thinspiration’ cult. It unfolds in a world of rarefied privilege in which people are prepared to swallow the health benefits of pretty much any quackery as long as the price tag is high enough. It’s about the dangers of outsourcing parental responsibilities to individuals and institutions with agendas. It looks terrific – as always Hausner’s use of colour and costume is striking and eloquent – but this is a thinly-written picture that operates on a largely superficial level.

 A thinly-written picture that operates on a largely superficial level.

What the picture does, quite effectively, is tap into parental anxiety about the malign influences that may be acting upon their children. Miss Novak (Mia Wasikowska), with her neat, passive-aggressive bob, is the physical embodiment of any number of websites that manipulate the thoughts of those not savvy enough to resist the lure of appealing disinformation. The film doesn’t have much new to say about these themes, however, a fact which may limit its appeal with audiences. It’s a bit of a tonal oddity, with themes that lend themselves to a more extreme and shocking approach. There’s a chilling horror film in here waiting to get out, or something eerie and unsettling like Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence. But Club Zero is cautious and restrained to a fault; Wasikowska, so much fun when she gets the space to play, is reined in.

Like any manipulator, Miss Novak is drawn to the weak and the damaged. She insinuates herself into the life of Fred (Luke Barker), the troubled kid dumped at school while his parents and younger brother are preoccupied with a project in Ghana. Elsa (Ksenia Devriendt) is already in the grip of an eating disorder; Ragna (Florence Barker) will do anything to rebel against her judgemental parents. And scholarship boy Ben (Samuel D Anderson) is the school’s social outcast.

Hausner once again encourages a distinctively flat, declamatory performance style from her actors. In her last picture, Little Joe, a sci-fi about biotechnology and genetic engineering, this mannered artificiality chimed with the themes of the film. But here, it is rather jarring and distracting. Additionally, it’s a particularly challenging style of acting for the younger cast members to pull off – what looks like a stylised, unnerving line reading from an accomplished adult (Sidse Babett Knudsen for example, as the school’s headmistress), runs the risk of looking like bad acting from a child.

In terms of its design, however, the film excels. The location choices are spot on: the parents’ homes feature lots of aggressively avant-garde concrete angles, the kind of buildings inhabited by people who think comfort is a compromise, who worship at the altar of style. The clothes speak of monied Bohemianism, personalities purchased from top-end designer stores. In contrast, the one lower-income parent, Ms Benedict (Amanda Lawrence), the mother of Ben, dresses desperately in her best Sunday outfits, but stands out like a sore thumb. The colour choices of the students’ uniforms – zingy lemon and lime, lux purples and midnight blue – work fabulously well. It’s a real head-turner of a film. It just relies a little too heavily on its looks.

Production company: coop99 Filmproduktion

International sales: Coproduction Office sales@coproductionoffice.eu

Producers: Philippe Bober, Mike Goodridge, Johannes Schubert, Bruno Wagner

Screenplay: Jessica Hausner, Geraldine Bajard

Cinematography: Martin Gschlacht

Editing: Karina Ressler

Production design: Beck Rainford

Music: Markus Binder

Main Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Amir El-Masry, Elsa Zylberstein, Mathieu Demy, Ksenia Devriendt, Luke Barker, Florence Baker, Samuel D Anderson, Gwen Currant