Wanting to make a difference

Jessica Hausner in conversation on Club Zero, Elsa Zylberstein and Mathieu Demy as parents, and Pied Piper of Hamelin

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Club Zero director Jessica Hausner with Anne-Katrin Titze (in Batsheva): “I do see the film in connection to a fairy tale. I think in all my films there is a connection to one fairy tale or the other.”
Club Zero director Jessica Hausner with Anne-Katrin Titze (in Batsheva): “I do see the film in connection to a fairy tale. I think in all my films there is a connection to one fairy tale or the other.”

Jessica Hausner’s bewitching Club Zero (co-written with Geraldine Bajard), shot by Martin Gschlacht (Silver Bear winner in the 2024 Berlin Film Festival for Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s The Devil’s Bath, Des Teufels Bad), scored by Markus Binder (European Film Award winner) with costumes by the ever surprising Tanja Hausner (recent work includes Frauke Finsterwalder’s Sisi & I, Ulrich Seidl’s Rimini and Sparta), starts off with students Fred (Luke Barker), Elsa (Ksenia Devriendt), Ragna (Florence Baker), Ben (Samuel D Anderson), Helen (Gwen Currant), Joan (Sade McNichols-Thomas), and Corbinian (Andrei Hozoc), all dressed in gender-neutral pale yellow polo shirts, beige skorts, and purple knee socks, gathering insect-like chairs for a Conscious Eating class, led by recently hired instructor Ms Novak (Mia Wasikowska). Ms Dorset (Sidse Babett Knudsen), the head mistress of this elite and very expensive international boarding school, is well-meaning and oblivious of the Trojan horse she has invited in.

Head Mistress Ms Dorset (Sidse Babett Knudsen) welcoming Ms Novak (Mia Wasikowska)
Head Mistress Ms Dorset (Sidse Babett Knudsen) welcoming Ms Novak (Mia Wasikowska)

Elsa’s mother, played by the great Elsa Zylberstein (Simone Veil in Olivier Dahan’s all-embracing portrait Simone: Woman Of The Century), feeds most of her food at the dinner table to the dog, and mirrors her daughter’s bulimia, all under the stern but willfully ignorant eyes of the father (Mathieu Demy). Elsa’s friend is Ragna, a trampolinist, whose desperately-up-to date-with-latest-sustainability-trends father (Lukas Turtur) found Ms Novak in the first place and suggested the course to the parents committee.

Fred, an aspiring dancer in rehearsals for a school performance of Peter & the Wolf, is teacher’s pet to more than one instructor at the school. His parents (Camilla Rutherford and Sam Hoare) and sibling (Luka Caselton) are in Ghana and his constant status as a left-behind resembles that of Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) in Alexander Payne’s marvelous, multiple-Oscar-nominated The Holdovers (Best Supporting Actress Oscar win for Da’ Vine Joy Randolph).

Ben (Samuel D Anderson), who is Fred’s roommate, comes from a much simpler background and his single mother (Amanda Lawrence) shows her love through piling on the food. Ben needs the credits for his scholarship, but at first fakes the conscious eating and secretly adds high-protein meat snacks from the school’s ubiquitous Nibbli vending machines to his diet.

Ms Novak (Mia Wasikowska) with her students
Ms Novak (Mia Wasikowska) with her students

Helen (Gwen Currant), the fifth remaining student of the inner core of Ms Novak’s class is still present when they discuss autophagy and self-healing methods to cleanse the body which, so they are told, makes you live 10 to 20 years longer. When the instruction reaches the next level with the promise of entry into the mysterious Club Zero, Helen is skiing in Switzerland and escapes what is to come.

The students’ initial reasons for taking the class range from a desire for self-control to stress reduction, from a sustainable lifestyle to needed credits for a scholarship, from saving the planet to improving fitness. Ms Novak, whom we know almost nothing about, except that she has no family and that her grinning face advertises boxes of fasting tea, embodies the present-day Pied Piper feared by parents everywhere.

From Vienna, Jessica Hausner joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Club Zero.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hello, Jessica, nice to meet you!

Jessica Hausner: Nice to meet you, too!

AKT: In many fairy tales food and abandoned children play a big role. Club Zero uses food in a prominent but slightly different way. Do you see your film in that fairy-tale tradition?

Elsa (Ksenia Devriendt) with her mother (Elsa Zylberstein) and their maid (Szandra Asztalos)
Elsa (Ksenia Devriendt) with her mother (Elsa Zylberstein) and their maid (Szandra Asztalos)

JH: I do see the film in connection to a fairy tale. I think in all my films there is a connection to one fairy tale or the other. I always find inspiration in old stories or fairy tales because I’m very interested also in stories that don’t change throughout the centuries or to find out what changes throughout the centuries. So what was the story a hundred years ago and what is relevant of it now?

For Club Zero, the Pied Piper of Hamelin fairy tale inspired me. This is of course about children being abducted and this is a very basic fear of every parent all over the world. This is the worst thing that can ever happen to you if you lose your child. So this very terrible and basic fear is underneath the whole storytelling of Club Zero; it’s the thing that never will change, that’s a very existential fear.

And the nutrition question, the food, is again something basic in our lives. The bodily aspect of surviving, it’s nearly like breathing, you just have to do it. I chose this subject also because I wanted to show to a very extreme extent how far people can go for their ideology, for their beliefs and the self-destruction of the body is one of the consequences.

AKT: It works well with the fairy-tale feel, because you almost believe Ms Novak at a point, that one can survive without food. You lead us that far into the story that we might say, okay, anything is possible in a tale. I also was reminded of Christian Kracht’s Imperium. Did you ever read the novel? It’s about the cocovore August Engelhardt, who founded a cult in the early 20th century around the idea that you could live on eating only coconuts and nothing else.

Jessica Hausner on Mathieu Demy’s Americano tattoo identifying him as Elsa’s (Ksenia Devriendt) father: “That’s funny! I have to tell him that you recognized him through the tattoo.”
Jessica Hausner on Mathieu Demy’s Americano tattoo identifying him as Elsa’s (Ksenia Devriendt) father: “That’s funny! I have to tell him that you recognized him through the tattoo.” Photo: Anne Katrin Titze

JH: No, I didn’t read it. I should read it!

AKT: It fits with your story, the idea of the cult and the longing of these children. The longing is real and makes it very much of the now.

JH: I think so too. I think you really hit the point there. The longing of the children to be part of something or to be part of a group that gives meaning to their lives. They want to make a difference and they want to be seen. I think that’s very natural and normal, even not only for young people. I do think it’s also the reason for adults to join groups and be part of a group where you can share at least a certain belief or ideology. It’s also important to mention that although the film portrays a group of young people, I would also say it’s the same story with adults, who also want to find meaning and coherence and acceptance in life.

AKT: You show that very well with the parents. The character of Elsa has Elsa Zylberstein play her mother and the two are mirroring each other. Plus there is Mathieu Demy as the father. It took me so long to recognise him! Then I saw his Americano tattoo and suddenly realised, oh, this is Mathieu Demy!

JH: That’s funny! I have to tell him that you recognised him through the tattoo.

AKT: I talked with him when he presented Americano in New York and we met a couple of times. His performance in Club Zero is amazing and is aided by the costumes. You put him in Versace Jeans Couture, which is so tacky and nouveau riche and tells us so much about that family. Tell me a bit about your casting!

Elsa (Ksenia Devriendt) with Helen (Gwen Currant) practicing Conscious Eating
Elsa (Ksenia Devriendt) with Helen (Gwen Currant) practicing Conscious Eating

JH: In general the idea was to show that it’s an international school, so I wanted the parents coming from different countries within Europe, which is also part of opening up the story a little bit and not saying it’s a typical British school or something. It is an international school for richer people within Europe or neighboring countries.

The young girl who plays Elsa, her name is Ksenia Devriendt and she is half French, half British. So we thought her parents could be French. I had met Elsa Zylberstein before and we get on well chatting with each other and we had promised each other we would want to work together. I thought this was a good moment, although Elsa Zylberstein plays lead roles. So for her this was a sort of favour she did for me.

AKT: Simone Veil is the part we had just seen her in.

JH: Yes, she’s wonderful as Simone Veil! I love that film a lot. And I think she’s a really great actress and she brought so much to what could have been a small role, but because of her a lot of people asked me about the role with her as that character because she is so moving when you understand that it’s her own problem that she projects on her daughter and there’s nothing she can do about it. It’s very moving.

AKT: And as the father, Mathieu is very convincing. Why can’t you just eat? He is so fed up with these women at his table, who, from his perspective, just don’t seem to get it together.

Ragna’s father (Lukas Turtur) and mother (Keeley Forsyth)
Ragna’s father (Lukas Turtur) and mother (Keeley Forsyth)

JH: Yeah, I think he had to overcome his own modern attitude towards education because I’m very sure that he as a father does not yell at his children. I got the feeling that he really had to find that part and overcome his own idea of how he would like to see himself as a father. In that role of course it was important that at that moment the father becomes quite aggressive and sort of forces his daughter to finally eat.

AKT: One of my favourite shots, which is rather silly, but I loved it, is the dog running upstairs.

JH: It was a trained dog!

AKT: Thank you for taking the time!

JH: Do you have a link to the short [Peter & The Wolf by Suzie Templeton, which I had mentioned to Jessica earlier]?

AKT: Yes, I can send it to you.

JH: That would be great!

Coming up - Jessica Hausner on Sidse Babette Knudsen, her close collaboration with her sister, costume designer Tanja Hausner, the costumes for Club Zero, Peter And The Wolf, school vending machines, actors eating or not eating on-camera, and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht.

Club Zero opens in the US on Friday, March 15.

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