Walking the red carpet for his Cannes premiere on Monday, Kaurismäki, instead of treating the procession like a formal occasion, goofed around with photographers and even poked a little fun at the festival’s head programmer, Thierry Frémaux, at the top of the steps. This is a filmmaker who delights in life.
“Club Zero,” directed by Jessica Hausner (“Little Joe“), opens with a warning that its depiction of eating disorders might make it distressing for some viewers. In the first scene, Miss Novak (Mia Wasikowska), a new teacher at a posh private school, asks her students why they want to take a course in “conscious eating.” (Google suggests that this is a real concept, but the movie seems unlikely to win it any adherents.) As taught by Miss Novak, conscious eating is a cross between a diet fad and meditation. The gist is if you take deep breaths and think really, really hard about what you’re about to eat, and you cut your food into tiny pieces and contemplate them rather than putting them in your mouth, eventually you’ll eat less.
The students want to take part for a variety of reasons—personal, environmental, academic. But Miss Novak isn’t one for half-measures. She looms over a student to tell him that a chunk of food is much too big. Soon she’s instructing them to eat a “plant-based mono diet”—only one type of food at a time, preferably a vegetable. Whenever students push back at Miss Novak’s instructions, she accuses them, gently, of not thinking the right way. Her methods are dangerous business for pupils who are diabetic or (already) bulimic. And just how little does Miss Novak think her class can get away with eating? Well, there’s a number in the movie’s title.
So “Club Zero” follows Miss Novak’s claque as they go to increasingly grotesque lengths to will themselves into starvation. There is a grossout element to the movie, notably in a scene in which a girl insists on eating her own vomit. But “Club Zero” isn’t really a satire of nutrition flimflammery, in part because it barely qualifies as satire. (Very few of the gimmicks here appear to have been wholly invented for the film. Please don’t try any of this at home.)
Since at least 2009’s “Lourdes,” Hausner has been interested in religion as a subject, and “Club Zero” becomes increasingly explicit about being a study of cult formation, and of how Miss Novak manages to bring skeptics around to her point of view. (When someone asks if it’s really possible to live on no food at all, Miss Novak replies, “The question is, why do we seek scientific proof for something that obviously works?” That sort of parry seems to play.) Even the principal (Sidse Babett Knudsen) gives her the benefit of the doubt.