Jessica Hausner’s latest film is an eerie and excoriating satire of what might be described as the corporate New Age moment and its fixation on wellness, mindfulness and sustainability. It takes place in a school in an unnamed (and somewhat ambiguous) European country, where the parent board has requested that “the children improve their nutrition skills.” The principal, Miss Dorset, played by Sidse Babett Kundsen, accordingly hires a nutrition guru, Miss Novak, played by Mia Wasikowska, who trials her program with a small class of students. Starting from the premise that “the way we produce and consume food today is deeply destructive to us as a species,” Miss Novak advocates “conscious eating” as the next logical step in the evolution of mindfulness. To some extent, this involves a specific diet – initially, a plant-based mono diet, in which the students only consume one type of food a day. However, it quickly turns into a more abstruse approach to eating as a form of wholistic meditation, centred on questions such as: “How do we learn consciousness by eating a bar of chocolate?”
Much of the early stages of the conscious eating program involve slow eating – staring at food for an age before putting it in the mouth, and then chewing and swallowing it at an equally glacial pace. Hausner mirrors this mindfulness with continuous slow zooms in and out, to the point where the syntax of the film is almost entirely comprised of these particular camera shots. This produces a hypnotic, mind-numbing and brain-deadening effect, an awry placidity that is only enhanced the by the periodic percussive score, and the lurid yellow-and-purple uniforms of the school. Finally, once she has gained the trust of the group, Miss Novak reveals her ultimate conscious eating mission – to wean them off food altogether, and inculcate a state of pure mindfulness in which they can subsist entirely on positive psychology. In doing so, she asks them to take the school motto literally – “there is more in you” – while also introducing them to the titular Club Zero, a “worldwide association of people who don’t eat.”
This develops into a parody of the wellness industry that has become dominant in some European strands of educational thought, as everything in this particular institution is subordinated to Miss Novak’s program. One of her students needs a scholarship to remain at the school, and also needs a robust diet to stay focused on his studies, and yet Miss Novak refuses to sign off on his scholarship application until he subscribes whole-heartedly to her conscious eating manifesto. Similarly, she insists that another student skip dance lessons to attend extra nutrition sessions, even this places him at greater risk of being injured on stage. Even the principal, Miss Dorset, apologies to Miss Novak for presuming to eat in front of her.
Along with this specific focus on the European educational system, Club Zero more generally queries whether conscious consumption has turned into a new form of conspicuous consumption. Miss Novak’s program equates sustainability with performative self-abnegation, as the students, all from wealthy backgrounds apart from the scholarship candidate, literally ruminate on privilege. Miss Novak continually draws links between corporate and corporeal sustainability, effectively positioning the body as a sustainable corporation, thanks to the “autophagic processes” that supposedly flush out toxins without the need for food. Rather than moving away from food, the students fetishise it even more in its absence – “Sometimes I really wish I didn’t have any food in my body at all” – while relishing in rejecting food only when there is a surplus of it. The film regularly returns to these students refusing or sending food back at their dinner tables, and with each rejection the camera pulls back a little bit more to reveal the scale of these homes and their domestic staff.
All that might suggest a sharp and somewhat savage satire, but the tonality of Club Zero is leavened by the very real earnestness of the students involved, along with the larger manifestations here of what Julia Leyda has described as the climate unconscious – a tendency for artists, texts, characters and real world figures to reckon with climate anxiety by looking at it awry. Some of the students in Miss Novak’s group explicitly cite global warming as a reason for conscious eating, but for the most part they have a grab bag of different (and often somewhat incoherent) motives for giving up food altogether. Nevertheless, there’s a sense that all of them are unconsciously fuelled by the anxieties of climate, partly because the biggest threat to conscious eating is “eating unconsciously.” One of the students realises early on that “I eat unconsciously,” while Miss Novak’s most severe session start with her observing that “there is someone present who has been eating unconsciously and I would like this person to step up now.” Club Zero thus wonders whether the “unbearable weight” that Susan Bordo ascribed to the first wave of anorexia and bulimia might be revived in a fresh generation under the burden of climate change – that is, whether eating disorders might become a new iteration of the climate unconscious. In one of the eeriest scenes of the film, a student sits across the dining table from her mother as both reject the food on offer, two generations of anorexia communing across the different contexts that led to their disorders.
In another kind of film, this might be expected to devolve into body horror, or to result in some kind of grotesque culinary spectacle. But Hausner instead opts for an eerie calm, intensifying the serenity of the film as the conscious eating project becomes more extreme. On the one hand, Miss Novak’s language becomes more militant and apocalyptic, as she insists to the students that “this is a revolutionary moment and we’re a part of it…you could be among the few who actually live when the rest of the world is going under.” On the other hand, the films congeals into the beneficent collective calm that Miss Novak identifies with the pastoral painting hanging on her wall, above her personal shrine. There are certainly a few visceral moments in between, as when one student vomits up her food, and then consumes it again, in a single act of regurgitation that matches the entire second act of Triangle of Sadness for intensity. But this just makes the conclusion all the more beatifically luminous, as the students transcend their appetites altogether, vanish from their family homes, and finally make their way across the landscape of Miss Novak’s painting. We’re left suspended in a kind of debilitated climate action, fuelled by a nostalgic pastoral longing to preserve landscapes in perpetuity rather than acclimatise to and work around the world as it exists and changes now – and this uncanny calm is Club Zero’s distinctive climate unconscious.