Reviews and notes
2019 Cannes, Jerusalem, Toronto, Athens, New York, Sitges, Hamburg, Stockholm, Rio de Janeiro
French provocateur Bertrand Bonello (Nocturama
) smartly mines the origins of the zombie narrative as a means of delving into the subject of his nation's colonialist past and the present ramifications of that history. Setting his story set across two distinct timelines, Bonello pitches the tale of Clairvius Narcissse (Mackenson Bijou), a Haitian man whose "zombification" resulted in forced labor in the sugar cane fields, against the present day encounters of his granddaughter Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) as she navigates the social and political terrain of a predominately white, all-girls private school in France, populated by the daughters and granddaughters of Legion of Honour recipients. Striking up a friendship with the headstrong Fanny (Louise Labèque), Mélissa gains access to a secret student group whose literary drives and hazing process leads her to reveal her family history, setting Fanny on a path of engagement (and appropriation) of the voodoo rituals connected to Mélissa's ancestry. With its shrewd repurposing of the themes of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie
to address the slavery and colonialism of the past and the ripples of that history as they play out in the present, Zombi Child
is a mysterious and yet strongly pointed exploration on the question of national culpability, as posed by one of contemporary cinema's current masters.
- Seattle International Film Festival 2020.
French director Bertrand Bonello is notoriously unafraid of risk. A highbrow cinematic provocateur since the late 90s, he caused a stir in France with his last film Nocturama
, a knowingly glamorous drama about terrorism and consumerism. He goes into dangerous territory again with Zombi Child
, which reclaims the currently flogged-to-death zombie myth for its authentic origins in Haitian culture. Mixing political commentary, ethnography, teenage melodrama and genre horror, the film is an unashamedly cerebral study of multiple themes – colonialism, revolution, liberalism, racial difference and female desire - with its unconventional narrative structure taking us on a journey that’s as intellectually demanding as it is compelling.
Some will find the film contentious, and Bonello knowingly lays himself open to charges of cultural appropriation; but a manifestly scholarly approach will give the film prestige with festivals and outlets interested in contemporary French cinema at its most conceptually ambitious.
In Haiti in 1962, a young man named Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou) finds himself transformed into a zombi (sic)
: nothing to do with the shambling undead of gore cinema, this is a process whereby a drug causes victims to seemingly die, leading to their being buried, exhumed and then exploited in their amnesiac state as sugarcane harvesters. In other words, zombification is a brutal reductio ad absurdum
of the condition of slavery.
In a parallel, contrasting strand, Bonello takes us into a very white milieu - an élite girls’ lycée
in France today, where the teenage students include dreamer Fanny (up-and-coming Louise Labèque, in her third feature), whose concentration is disturbed by interior-monologue love letters to her boyfriend and occasional fantasies about female schoolmates. Fanny is a member of a secret ‘literary sorority’ (in fact, a midnight drinking club for a small group of snooty girls), and suggests recruiting new Haitian student Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat). Mélissa passes the induction test by reciting a militant poem by René Depestre, ‘Cap’tain Zombi’ – although she never quite overcomes her peers’ racist suspicion of her ‘weirdness’.
The film’s slow-burning juxtaposition of its two strands comes to a head, and takes an unexpected structural turn, when Fanny visits Mélissa’s aunt Katy (a warm, imposing performance by Tatiana Wilfort), a mambo
or practitioner of voodoo, hoping that she can solve her love problems. This is where things get more outré, in a way that mixes well-researched voodoo lore and horror imagery (the film echoes Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie
, Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow
and others), although the climax so departs from the tone hitherto established that viewers will either gasp at Bonello’s audacity or feel he has crossed a line in both taste and narrative logic. By the end, however – and the use of the most incongruous pop standard imaginable – the film has taken us to places that we rarely visit in cinema (and certainly never in legit zombie movies).
Invoking French history and political theory (with real-life historian Patrick Boucheron giving the students a somewhat demanding lecture) and using striking locations including a palatial school in Saint-Denis and the ruins of Haiti’s Sans-Souci Palace, the film plays stimulatingly with ideas of freedom and revolution, with Clairvius, struggling against his zombi
state, figuring as the ultimate freedom fighter.
While the film, with its sequences showing Haitian ceremonies, might strike some as a white French director indulging in exoticism, Bonello takes Haitian history and culture absolutely seriously, and in juxtaposing them with the most exclusively white French experience imaginable (the school is for children and descendants of Légion d’Honneur laureates), Zombi Child
poses timely and provocative questions. Crisp lensing by Yves Cape, Katia Wyszkop’s design, and music by artists including rapper Damso, plus Bonello himself, combine to make a richly conceived piece. Strong performances from the young cast, including charismatic newcomer Louimat, make this a zombi
drama that’s not undead but bracingly alive.
- Jonathan Romney, Screen Daily, 17 May 2019.
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