Wowsers the hits just keep on coming at Cannes this year. As it turned out, the two competition films that screened today are both absolute winners. It’s not going to be easy for Ruben Östlund and his jury to reach a consensus by week’s end.
First up we have Austrian director Jessica Hausner’s English-language satirical drama Club Zero. Set at an unnamed elite private school, the film begins with the first meeting of a new class in “Conscious Eating” taught by the specially recruited Ms. Novak (Mia Wasikowska). While not all the enrolled students are convinced by Ms. Novak’s teachings that eating less leads to better quality of life in a better world, those who stick around and start practicing being “conscious eaters” do notice a change – both within themselves and in relation to those around them. When the last five students take things so far they stop eating altogether – thereby becoming members of “Club Zero” – their parents try to intervene but it might be too late.
I had a great time with this movie. It’s funny, disturbing, provocative and full of interesting observations about our relationship with food. At the start of their first meeting, the students each explains why they took the course: for reasons of health, mindfulness, environmental protection, weight control etc. As the film then shows us glimpses of each student’s private life, how they interact with their family and friends, you realize we do each consume food so differently, for all sorts of reasons. It is both a highly private matter and something inevitably shaped by upbringing and society. One’s eating habits also reveal so much about their social and economic standing. As we see with the different families of the students, it’s often the rich who can afford to not eat.
I find these commentary in the screenplay by Hausner and co-writer Géraldine Bajard insightful and thought-provoking. From the standpoint that most people never pause to consider if they are putting too much food in their body and why, the idea of “conscious eating” sounds sensible. But as the film goes on to show in comic-shocking fashion, any good idea could be taken too far and become an obsession. Beyond their physical transformation, it’s how the youngsters changed mentally that proves the most upsetting. When whether or not to have a bite of bread becomes a matter of faith, people are ready to do, literally, stomach-churning things.
Shot by Martin Gschlacht, the film looks forebodingly pretty, creating the impression that we’re watching events happening in an alternate reality. The drum-heavy, taiko-flavored score by Markus Binder adds an extra layer of suspense and unease to the scenes. Both Wasikowska and Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays the school principal in a delicious supporting role, are a joy to watch. Hausner’s direction recalls the visual austerity of her compatriots Ulrich Seidl and Michael Haneke, while successfully walking a tricky line between the satiric and cautionary. So good.
Then we have veteran Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, who’s back in Cannes competition with Fallen Leaves. Clocking in at just 81 minutes, it’s a lovely little dramedy about finding happiness in the darkest times. Quirky, sweet, big-hearted, it’s everything you’d expect from a Kaurismäki joint, and that’s never less than wonderful.
The story revolves around supermarket cashier Ansa (Alma Pöysti) and construction worker Holappa (Jussi Vatanen). Financially both are just scraping by, drifting from one low-paying job to the next. Emotionally they are two lonely souls, fending for themselves at all times. When they finally meet, there’s an instant connection, but fate would separate them again and again. As news of Russia’s war against Ukraine blast non-stop from the radio, we watch these characters give it their best shot to stay afloat and find their way to each other.
Kaurismäki’s iconic visual and narrative styles are very much intact in Fallen Leaves. The sets look like soundstage, the scenes feel episodic, and all the characters speak and move like mannequins in slo-mo, down to the casual robbers. Overall there’s a strong sense of affectedness to everything you see. And yet he manages to capture amidst all the artificiality human emotions and sentiments in their truest form. Whether it’s the many shots of Ansa riding the tram alone or her dinner with Holappa that does not go as planned, the humanity always comes through, despite the deadpan and the fake sets.
When other filmmakers are trying to top each other by the size or complexity of their stories, Kaurismäki deals in simplicity. He writes about ordinary people in situations that are relatable to all. With Fallen Leaves, he’s crafted yet another humanist gem that’s not afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve and, stylistically, stands out by a mile. It’s a film I could not imagine people disliking and, as such, could be a challenger to the much more polarizing The Zone of Interest for the Palme d’Or. We shall see soon enough.