If nothing else, each new Jessica Hausner film makes an more and more plain case that no different narrative director is extra skeptical of — and even hostile in the direction of — the social establishments into which individuals entrust their religion. Her first and still only great movie confronted that topic head-on by telling the story of a wheelchair-bound lady whose a number of sclerosis seems to be cured by a go to to the Catholic sanctuary of Lourdes. Alas, each of the contemporary-set movies she’s made since concentrate on extra distinctly trendy sources of religion, and each of these movies are undone by her distinctly trendy failure to tell apart good religion from dangerous.
In 2019’s “Little Joe,” Hausner questioned the world’s rising reliance on prescription drugs with an “Invasion of the Physique Snatchers” riff that likened antidepressants to a dehumanizing alien pressure. With the equally glib however even much less explicable “Club Zero,” she returns with a Pied Piper-inspired darkish comedy concerning the potential risks of inserting an excessive amount of confidence in our youngsters’s college academics. You realize, the actual villains of the twenty first century.
After all, there’s nothing inherently unsuitable with making a movie on that or any topic; much better ones have been mined from similar concerns, typically in response to DeSantis-like despots who regard school rooms because the frontline of their fascist-minded tradition warfare. However Hausner one way or the other manages to twist a wry satire of Instagram “wellness” and Gen Z’s zero-sum strategy to the world’s issues right into a seemingly inadvertent broadside in opposition to the very people she claims should be “essentially the most revered members of society.”
It’s all the time been onerous to not admire Hausner’s audacity, however this time across the boldness of her storytelling lastly spills into trollish provocation. Sorry, I’m burying the lede: “Membership Zero” is a film a few new instructor at an English boarding college named Ms. Novak (performed by a frighteningly self-convinced Mia Wasikowska), whose cult-like lesson plan hinges on convincing her college students that meals is definitely dangerous for them. All meals. “There’s extra in you,” she tells her small clutch of teenage college students, which proves to be step one in manipulating them to place much less into themselves.
Ms. Novak’s curriculum begins with “acutely aware consuming,” which is a bit woo woo however in any other case wise sufficient. Issues rapidly start to escalate from there, nevertheless, as Ms. Novak casually preys upon her college students’ private insecurities as a way to promote them on a plant-based “mono food plan” after which a full-blown abstinence from all meals. Do you know that tons of, and presumably even 1000’s of individuals all over the world have found the well being advantages and common enlightenment that may be achieved by not consuming? Yeah, they’re simply holding the key to themselves as a result of mainstream society isn’t prepared for that type of fact bomb.
The heightened actuality of Hausner’s movie — a stiff and angular dimension that evokes the dry giallo of a Peter Strickland movie even earlier than “The Duke of Burgundy” star Sidse Babett Knudsen exhibits up as the college headmistress — helps to disguise a few of the extra logical issues with this premise. Not solely do the youngsters in Ms. Novak’s seem to don’t have any different associates (it’s by no means implied they have been chosen for his or her insecurities), however they appear wholly bored with intercourse, social media, or any kind of engagement with the surface world, even though all of them personal cell telephones. From the pink varnish on the merchandising machine at college to the Lanthimos-like cruelty the characters use to disgrace one another into compliance, each element in “Membership Zero” is glazed with the self-insistent mirth of an unfunny satire that bites off a complete lot greater than it’s keen to chew.
Together with the percussive twang of Markus Binder’s rating, which helps nearly each main beat within the film with an additional comedian pop, the two-tone surreality of Hausner’s set and costume design additionally works to make sure that impressionable audiences don’t take “Membership Zero” too actually. The movie remains to be destined to be labeled as “harmful,” however its varied buffers and backstops begin to turn into all of the extra vital as soon as it begins to look like Ms. Novak could be onto one thing.
Fred (Luke Barker), the shy ballet dancer whose mother and pa work in Ghana, immediately strikes with newfound grace. Elsa (Ksenia Devriendt), the bulimic woman whose wealthy mother and father really feel extra typical of the movie’s scholar physique, develops a brand new stage of confidence. The scholarship child’s grades go up, the gymnast is ready to bounce larger on the trampoline, and the over-involved mother and father who discovered Ms. Novak on the web are glad sufficient with the outcomes of her class — a minimum of till one thing wholly unrelated triggers a sudden come-to-Jesus second.
A mum or dad herself, Hausner is clearly being crucial of the conditional involvement that every one of those busy mothers and dads take of their kids’s lives, however she’s way more compelled by the mind-altering impact that sure establishments can have on folks. By acknowledging the ridiculousness of Ms. Novak’s curriculum similtaneously it underscores the newfound sense of non-public management her college students derive from their collective consuming dysfunction (which is horrifying, and by no means humorous sufficient to justify turning it right into a joke), “Membership Zero” is free to take low cost photographs on the supposed groupthink of youth tradition with out even bothering to determine its goal.
I suppose, regardless of the faux-timelessness of its aesthetic, that “Membership Zero” could possibly be justified as a contemporary fairy story a few world through which radicalization is threatening to turn into a brand new requirement of non-public identification, however doing so would require you to disregard that self-denial is a trope as previous as faith itself. It could additionally distract from the truth of a film that doesn’t have any thought of the place to position its blame. Are overworked mother and father the issue? Are college academics brainwashing our youngsters? Or are at this time’s uncompromisingly progressive teenagers at distinctive threat of getting their beliefs get weaponized in opposition to them? None of this stuff are mutually unique, however all of them are poorly articulated right here.
It’s one factor for Hausner to query faith, which has been liable for all method of sins over the centuries, however antidepressants — and now educators — really feel like cynical targets for a filmmaker determined to undermine something which may assist folks higher put together themselves for the difficulties of a godless world. I need to have religion that I’m misreading Hausner’s intentions, and presumably not for the primary time, however I’m getting fairly exhausted by the dearth of religion she appears to have in everybody else.
“Membership Zero” premiered in Competitors on the 2023 Cannes Movie Pageant. It’s at the moment searching for U.S. distribution.