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Trigger Warning: Jessica Hausner Is Going to Keep Asking Uncomfortable Questions

At the beginning of “Club Zero,” the disquieting new film from director and co-writer Jessica Hausner, a trigger warning appears on screen: “This film contains scenes of behaviour control and related eating disorders which may be distressing for some viewers.” You can’t say you weren’t warned. Over the next two hours, Hausner immerses us in the disturbing world of a nondescript international boarding school, where an eerily serene new teacher, Miss Novak (Mia Wasikowska), is enlightening her students about the virtues of “conscious eating,” preaching the gospel that Western consumerism isn’t just harming our planet but our bodies as well. Eating less won’t just save the environment, she explains—it’s better for us as individuals, ensuring that we’ll live longer and feel healthier. In principle, what Miss Novak is advocating seems reasonable—until she takes it too far, with her impressionable class following her every deadly instruction. 

Greeted by mostly hostile reviews at Cannes, “Club Zero” is the latest chilly, absurdist provocation from the Austrian auteur, whose last film, 2019’s “Little Joe,” received an equally bumpy reception at the prestigious French film festival. Hausner, 51, has gotten used to dividing a room with her movies. Her 2009 drama “Lourdes,” with Sylvie Testud and a pre-“Blue Is the Warmest ColorLéa Seydoux, concerned a young woman with multiple sclerosis who travels to the titular Catholic pilgrimage site—not because she’s religious but because she likes the excuse to get out of the house. To her shock, though, she’s suddenly cured—is there, in fact, a God? And if so, why is He helping a nonbeliever instead of all the faithful who are also on the trip with her? “Lourdes,” Hausner’s third film and first widely seen in the U.S., is a wry, thought-provoking masterpiece, but I know colleagues who loathe it. 

Nothing has changed for Hausner since: Each time out, she asks indelicate questions about touchy issues—religion, suicide, motherhood, medicinally-induced happiness—and she’s unafraid to agitate viewers in the process. “Club Zero” is a full meal of disturbing themes—eating disorders, cult leaders, checked-out parents, dangerous groupthink, economic disparity, loneliness, global warming—as we watch Miss Novak encourage her students to eat less and less as a form of protest to our overfed society and the grossly cruel food industry. But even if their intentions are good, the results are terrifying, and Hausner follows them to their surprising, shocking and, ultimately, logical endpoint.

Speaking over Zoom from Vienna, Hausner explains why her film starts with that trigger warning. “It was an idea that came from one of the distributors,” she says. “We had some test screenings, and some audiences said they think that the film could trigger eating-disorder experiences. That’s why we put that trigger warning in.” Still, Hausner seems to have mixed feelings about the decision. “This is something I obviously cannot judge well. Is it okay or is it not okay to have one or to have not one? I don’t know.” But she remembers the reaction it prompted at Cannes. “We [didn’t] think that it would be so striking—I was really astonished that a lot of journalists referred to it.”

No doubt some will view that trigger warning as a flippant dare to the audience: Can you handle what’s coming? (Some critics have used it as more proof in their minds that Hausner’s films are merely superficially button-pushing.) How does Hausner feel about her reputation for being a provocateur? And what does she think of her new movie’s most disturbing scene? (I won’t spoil it, but if you’re interested to learn more, click here.) In conversation, Hausner is far from a bomb-thrower—anyone expecting a Lars von Trier-like instigator will be disappointed. But what came through clearly was that she means to challenge her audience—and that she doesn’t care if she gets some bad reviews because of it. Just so long as she gets some good ones as well. 

If I’m doing the math right, your son is close to the age of the students in “Club Zero.” I wondered if what partly inspired your interest in making this film was concerns about what his generation is going through.

It’s a little bit a view into the future—he’s younger, he’s 14—but the questions that a parent asks herself are similar questions. It’s always about trying to find the best protection for your child and trying to avoid any dangerous situation. If the child is [younger], you don’t want him to fall from the playground [equipment]. And if the child is older, there are other threats and other dangers. 

I was very interested in investigating that danger for young adults—which has a lot to do with them becoming their own personality and trying to develop their own perspective on life and their own opinions. Young adults try out things, and they’re very open to certain ideas. And that’s normal, but it’s a very delicate moment.

Young people tend to be idealistic, with their worldview becoming more pessimistic and cynical as they get older. “Club Zero” focuses on that scary period when such idealism can be exploited or perverted by others—namely, Miss Novak.

Every young person has that longing to find a meaning in life. A lot of adults, also—when you become older, you’re so busy getting your day organized that you forget to ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” I’ve had young adults in previous films of mine because I find it interesting that moment in life when you’re still open, when you’re still trying to find your position. So, for me as a filmmaker, it’s a great opportunity to question certain positions. 

My film does not judge and say, “This is right and this is wrong, and they are the good ones and they are the bad ones.” That’s the weird thing about “Club Zero”: You have to choose as an audience what you think of it. And at some point, the way those young people start to believe in Miss Novak and her ideas has a lot to do with their urge to change [things], to really make a difference—but that’s also threatening us older adults, because we have become used to our life. But the younger people still question it, and of course it’s exaggerated [in the movie]—you have to eat to live—but what if those young people have decided that it is more important to change the world than to just live? Maybe they’re willing to give their lives. It’s not a film about saying they don’t understand that you have to eat—that’s not the point. The point is maybe they do understand that it’s threatening their lives, and they still do it. 

Your films are often called “provocative.” Would you describe yourself as a provocative person when you were young? Were you a troublemaker at school?

I was always questioning things, but I wasn’t causing a lot of trouble. I was a very good student—I had very good grades, and I did everything on time—but I questioned the teachers, and this was, for some of them, quite annoying. [Laughs] I remember that they asked my parents to come to school, but they couldn’t complain about my grades, because I had good grades—they complained about me asking endless questions and questioning what they say all the time. 

That is something that I still have that’s still annoying people, but I’m questioning those things that we all think [are] certain. It never convinced me [that I should] accept that this should be the truth—I always try to find the other side of it.

You are often put in the same cinematic camp as button-pushing artists like Michael Haneke, Ulrich Seidl and Lars von Trier. Is that where you put yourself?

I’m sure that makes me part of a group. But on the other hand, I do think that the female perspective that I have is something that I couldn’t find in many male directors that otherwise I would appreciate. So I do feel a little bit more related to filmmakers like Maya Deren—she inspired me a lot, especially when I was a young student in film school and we only were taught male directors’ films. They pretended that there were no women! [Laughs] Later, I found out that there were women, and then I was really shocked. I thought, “I’m going to sue the film academy because they lied to us! This was not part of the curriculum!” 

Then I saw the documentary by Mark Cousins, “Women Make Film”—I was in tears when I saw that film, it’s incredible. There’s a whole world that nobody was talking about in film school. Back then I felt lost—I thought, “There are no women, why should I be able to be a filmmaker?”—so I was really confused. That’s why I was happy to find some female filmmakers to back me up—to give me some confidence.

Both “Little Joe” and “Club Zero” premiered at Cannes, and the reviews tended to be pretty negative. The consensus seemed to be, “Oh, that Jessica Hausner is just trying to be provocative again, trying to get a rise out of her audience.” How do you engage with that criticism of your work? 

I’m used to a certain criticism. I have the feeling my films have always had an effect on the audience—there is a certain space for interpretation [in my work], and I leave that room for interpretation on purpose. But some people don’t like that—they think, “Oh, something is missing. Why doesn’t the film tell me what to think?” But I don’t have only negative reviews—it is always partly negative, partly positive. [My work] provokes some people to say, “We don’t like it”—maybe this will never change. As long as the other half says, “I love it,” I’m okay.

There’s a scene in “Club Zero” that’s very upsetting. I won’t spoil it for readers, but it’s incredibly uncomfortable to watch. When you come up with a scene like that, do you worry, because of your reputation, that people will just dismiss it as inflammatory? Or, conversely, do you think, “I’m glad this is going to upset some viewers”?

When I write a script, a script has a life of its own. I have a lot of discussions with the producers, with my co-writer, with the cinematographer and people I trust. We talk about the film, ideas develop, and there are moments where somebody says, “Oh, I hope this is not going to be too offensive or misunderstood.” Then I think about it: “Oh, maybe it could be misunderstood. Maybe it’s too offensive.” But then writing the script, all those ideas take their own road—there is a moment where I have to say, “This scene has to be there because it’s about the character and it’s about what the film is about.” 

The film is about radicalism, and [that scene] is another moment of radicalism—there was not an option for me to not have it in the film. In a way, [what happens in that scene] is a weird form of catharsis, also. Without the scene, maybe the film would be toothless. You cannot know what the critique will be, so I do what the film wants from me.

“Club Zero” is sometimes described as a satire or a dark comedy. Obviously, the movie is about very distressing, serious subject matter. How funny do you think your film is?

I think a lot about the tone of a film. I maybe wouldn’t call it a comedy, but I do laugh when I write certain dialogue or certain scenes. When my co-writer and I work together, it’s a lot about “Is there a humor to the scene? Is there a thrill? Is there something that is challenging, interesting, unusual?” We often laugh [while] writing the script. But in the beginning of a film, I’m searching for that tone.

I once made a film about a double suicide—it was called “Amour Fou.” I had planned that film 10 years earlier, but the script that I wrote was really sad. [Laughs] It was about two people who don’t want to live anymore and they jump from a cliff. That was horrible, and I wrote it and then I put it in the drawer and said, “Okay, I’m not going to make that film because it’s too sad for me.” So I only start a project if I find that specific tone—it’s serious, but it’s also saying, “We all are absurd because we take ourselves seriously, but we are not so important. Life ends and everything that we think is super-important is suddenly completely ridiculous.” [Laughs]

When “Little Joe” came out, you talked about it being a reflection of your own feelings about the pressures of being the “perfect” mom. In “Club Zero,” Mia Wasikowska’s Miss Novak is an unmarried, childless professional woman. Our society doesn’t seem to know what to do with that kind of woman, either. In some ways, the two characters feel like mirror images commenting on what is “acceptable” for women to be. 

In all my films, the female characters are questioning clichés—they aren’t what they “should” be. It’s actually a series of female characters who are “wrong” or who cannot adapt to what they should do and look like and be like. 

I’m also interested in trying to find characters that are typically male characters. For example, my first feature film, “Lovely Rita,” there is a young girl who shoots her parents. Back then at least, you had all those men killing, rebelling against their fathers. But what about the young woman? Where is her rebellion? And in “Club Zero,” there are female cult leaders, but it’s not so common to think about a woman as a seducer, as a manipulator, as a psychopath.

Were there real-world individuals you had in mind while conceiving Miss Novak, this Pied Piper-like teacher who leads these impressionable students astray? Certainly there’s no shortage of such examples in the news.

I do think there are people who offer simple truths, and there are enough people who follow those people. I even would say this is a typical thing in our times—we are all trying to find meaning, and religion has become very weak, and other ideologies are offered now. 

We don’t really know where and when “Club Zero” takes place, but it’s in Europe or in the Western world. The refusal of nutrition is only typical for a world where there is enough food, so it is a story about wealthy people—about us. It is a film about trying to find a way to influence things in life—it’s a very desperate move that [Miss Novak’s class] is doing, but it’s a move.

Anorexia and bulimia are central to the film, and you have talked about going to a Catholic boarding school and witnessing these eating disorders. Are such problems worse now than they were back then? 

In the research for this film, I did talk to teachers and house masters in boarding schools, and I tried to find out if eating disorders are still happening a lot, like when I was young. I was told, yes, it’s still a big problem. Another thing that young people are doing is self-harm—they cut their skin. Self-destructive actions are present—they have been when I was young, and they’re present now

But the young generation now—through the interviews that I was doing—I found out they have a very strong and real fear about climate change. I do think that more kids nowadays really suffer from that fear. It’s always a question of how the measurement works, but there seems to be an increase [in] depressive feelings. Climate change is a real threat, and what my film is showing is that those young people are serious about it.

“Club Zero” takes this behavior to extremes, but political advocates will sometimes go on hunger strikes to raise awareness for a cause. How effective do you think such protests are?

I understand that, in some situations, people are desperate to make themselves be heard, and hunger strike is one means of political protest. Sometimes it has no effect, sometimes it has [an] effect—this, I cannot judge. But in “Club Zero,” the young girl Elsa (Ksenia Devriendt) definitely links her denial to eat with her [politics] when she criticizes the food industry. I’ve talked to many people, and they all say that’s an interesting moment because what she says is really true: The food industry seduces us to eat crap just for some people to make money. We can’t deny it, and at the same time, we feel sorry for the girl who is sacrificing herself to make that point so clear.

What about advocacy in general? Your film examines the limitations while also acknowledging the legitimate ills of the world that need to be combated. Did making “Club Zero” change your opinion on what advocacy can actually accomplish?

It’s a very complicated question. I don’t have an answer, but I am dealing with it—in my next film, I’m describing a problem that is hard to solve. [It] is very complicated, in general, to find solutions that improve situations for everyone. Not everyone is the same, so if you implement changes, maybe it’s good for one person, bad for the other person. And the other thing is you cannot foresee all the consequences of your deeds.

But I wanted to say something in “Club Zero”: An idea can be very wrong and very destructive, but part of it can be true and right. This is very daring to do, I learned, because people don’t want to know that. They want you to say, “Those are the wrongs, and those are the rights.” And in my films you always have grays. That’s probably the provocative thing, more than [that upsetting scene in “Club Zero”]: It’s really about the terrible confusion of “right” and “wrong.”

Does it frustrate you that some audiences won’t follow you into the gray?

My only advocacy is to let the doubts and the questions grow. It’s really important to doubt ourselves, to doubt people who say, “This is right and this is wrong,” to doubt movies that pretend to have a simple truth for you. It’s complex, and maybe if we understand the complexity, that’s already a change to the better.

Your first two films, “Lovely Rita” and “Hotel,” are finally getting distributed in the U.S. When you look back at them now, do you see an evolution in your work since then?

The core parts in my films were already there—[even] in the first films, it was very much about questioning right and wrong. It has always been my interest to find situations where you’re torn between two or more options of true and false. I saw the films again—we did a [restoration] for the digital prints—and I thought [it was] interesting, already back then, that I made films about showing the mystery in things that we thought we knew what they were.

Did negative reactions to those early movies teach you anything? Did you become aware, “Oh, I guess some people are going to like my work and some people are really going to recoil”?

I learned it after “Hotel.” Back then, I was, I don’t know, only 30 years old? It was my second feature film—I took it very seriously and very personally—and the [criticism] from the press, but also from some audiences, was quite aggressive. I was astonished because in the film there is nothing offensive, but what made the people angry was that they don’t get an answer. It’s a mystery film, and the mystery isn’t solved in the end. 

I thought they would enjoy it, but I learned something about what an audience is used to [seeing]. I wouldn’t say that people aren’t able to appreciate doubt or mystery—it’s just a question of how you deliver it. After “Hotel,” I decided, “Okay, now I understand that this is what I’m doing—I make films where the mystery isn’t solved, where the audience has to make up their own mind.” So I took one or two years to think about, “How can I deliver that idea in a way that at least some of the audience likes it?” 

I came up with different options, and with [my next feature] “Lourdes,” I did change a little bit of my filmmaking—I tried to give more clues. There is more dialogue in the [later] films. There is maybe more aesthetic or more colors. The style has developed. Also, the music score has become very important—there are more moments for an audience to understand and grasp the idea.

“Club Zero” isn’t just about the students and Miss Novak, of course—it’s also about the teenagers’ parents, who are often portrayed as privileged, self-absorbed and out-of-touch. They’re eventually worried about their kids, but they can’t really reach them. You’re a parent—are those characters speaking to your own fears and experience? 

I always have to like my characters—it’s a sympathy that comes with writing them—and with the parents, that’s me and my friends. Of course, the film has a certain tone of making fun of them, but I have sympathy for them, although they do wrong and they’re ridiculous.

That must be the scariest thing as a parent—not being able to help your child.

The scariest thing are the moments that you don’t see where you do something wrong. A father [in the film] has the T-shirt [that says] “Blind”—that’s the scary moment, because he doesn’t see that he [has] a blind spot. 

As a parent, sometimes you don’t notice. As long as you notice, you’re okay—you can do something wrong, and afterwards you apologize, and if you’re serious about it, it will improve the situation. But the dangerous moments are when you don’t even see how you’re doing wrong—when you don’t understand. 

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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