Cannes 2023: Club Zero, Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell
Faith, divinity, transcendence and/or what one might otherwise call “magical” interventions remain thematic staples of arthouse filmmaking, not least in Cannes films that carve out a space for poetic languors and modest effects work which elevate non-commercial films’ often make-do or naturalistic mises-en-scène. Austere Austrian auteur Jessica Hausner is not necessarily in need of stylistic elevation—her ongoing collaboration with DP Martin Gschlacht produces immaculately, almost imposingly detailed front-to-back compositions—yet her work remains devoted to characters navigating the world’s capacity for miracles, spirituality or some great beyond. Despite an opening on-screen trigger warning preparing the audience for upsettingly frank depictions of eating disorders, Club Zero is, at heart, not too concerned with interrogating anorexia and bulimia or the climate impact of the food industry, but rather with developing many of the themes from her breakout 2009 film Lourdes—namely, modernity’s increasingly secular relationship to the human body and the role that signs play in belief systems.
Miss Novak (Mia Wasikowska) is a cheery entrepreneur marketing a new fasting tea she slapped her image onto who has also begun teaching a class “on conscious eating” at a British boarding school. A little over half a dozen students enroll, each for a unique reason (teenage rebellion, controlling insulin levels, earning a necessary credit for a scholarship, etc.) which we briefly hear about in a fluid, single-take 360-degree pan that reminds the audience right from the jump that Hausner means business when it comes to images. We see this especially in the costuming, which is always bright and coordinated, from the students’ tennis ball-yellow uniforms to Novak’s mix of tangerine, indigo and lime green tops. Flat and affected performances, graphic compositions, ominous zooms and the hard edges of the school’s Brutalist architecture keep everything in line, portraying life as an automatic process through which bodies progress instead of live.
Club Zero’s core tension builds from Novak’s syllabus, which advances from flash card lessons on autophagy to recommending her class attempt the prolonged (even permanent) zero-intake fasts which give the film its title. The impressionable students’ (mostly) unchecked willingness to abide by their teacher’s austere curriculum is actually rational enough: An authority figure responsible for their grades, and therefore their future, insists that this is the path to complete fulfillment, and all they have to do to achieve it is not do something. None of them express any apparent desire to lose weight or would clearly benefit from evading economically prohibitive food prices. The science backing this up (much of which was pulled from current health trends and actual health journals that have led to the West’s recent embrace of fasting), and the students’ awareness of this data, contradicts their understanding of food restriction (that “not eating” means “anorexia”) and allows them to engage in a faith-oriented project. The profane becomes sacred, proof that “there is more in us.” There may be deficiencies in Hausner’s approach (an over-reliance on cynicism, to start), but Club Zero is her most methodical and chilling film about framing—the creation and enclosure of an image, and therefore the construction and establishment of a concept that holds credence.
Faith similarly haunts Pham Thien An’s strikingly accomplished debut Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell, a 178-minute slow cinema opus its maker expanded from his previous short, Stay Awake, Be Ready, winner of the Quinzaine’s Illy Prize in 2019. Like its root film, which consisted of a solitary 14-minute shot, Yellow Cocoon Shell luxuriates in long takes—Pham works with cinematographer Dinh Duy Hung, who also shot his short films—and has its story jump-started by a motor accident. In these opening minutes, Pham establishes his dexterity with complex camera-action choreography. Beginning with a stationary view of a Saigon football field in 2018, the camera eventually dollies over to a bustling restaurant patio (a movement that’s initiated by following a team mascot exiting the frame) where a table of three men (including the film’s protagonist, Thien [Le Phong Vu]), discusses the ambiguity of the existence of faith, before a sudden wind storm gusts through the area and causes the fatal motorbike crash that prompts the camera to pan right and gaze upon the carnage, which we soon learn has claimed the life of Thien’s sister-in-law, Hanh.
Whatever defects one may detect in Pham’s writing or aptitude with actors, they are outweighed by the bravura execution of his Bi Gan-esque mobility theater, which will remain the star of the show for the entire three hours. I never whipped out my phone’s stopwatch app, but I’m convinced that at least one of these long takes hit the half-hour mark, and that duration is never meant to be invisible. You will be conscious of the way banal conversations distend well beyond the production of narrative gap-filling, ending not on a cut but on Thien hopping on a moped and cruising along a dirt road or two before stopping to enter a house where he’ll begin another endless conversation with a totally different character, this one kept almost entirely out of sight, no cutting at all. Is it ostentatiousness for its own sake? Absolutely, and about two hours in it occurred to me that the movie was probably just spinning its wheels en route to the estimable three-hour mark because it’s an impressive benchmark to hit. (Would I be surprised if Pham soon becomes a challenger to Lav Diaz for gratuitously marathon running times? Absolutely not.)
If it sounds like I found all of this to be more than a little exasperating, I did, but I was also never mad at it. The long takes in Yellow Cocoon Shell, which will be catnip for the Bazinians in the room, reveal Pham’s desire to accommodate natural interventions within the story’s premeditated beats, even as the off-frame obtrusions—mainly from animals, from baby birds to water buffalo to crowing (then battling) roosters—are clearly, even distractingly manufactured. When a hen hops into a window at the precise moment the camera finishes its slow drift over to center it in its frame, or when a butterfly flutters into Hanh’s memorial service, landing on her photo immediately after a lightning storm causes the lights to flicker off and then on again, it feels simultaneously miraculous and totally planned, too perfect to have been intended and yet too essential to have been accidental. It’s a movie in which every other long take delivers such wonder, and yet also elicits doubts. The invisible machinations that intersect each journey—the studio wind machine used for the opening scene’s storm; the certain human intervention (if not CGI) that was necessary to ignite hundreds of glowing white moths on a tree the moment it enters the frame—is ever palpable for the viewer who knows that this kind of magic is too good for the movies. And when Thien’s now-motherless five-year-old nephew, Dao (Nguyen Thinh), begs his uncle, “Show me more magic!” I too found myself wishing for more as I waded deep into Yellow Cocoon Shell’s second half. When Dao subsequently asks what is the shape of faith, Thien speaks, too, for the film itself: “It has no form,” and Pham makes a solid argument for why it isn’t always needed.