LFF 2019: Zombi Child
French auteur Bertrand Bonello (House of Tolerance, Nocturama) delivers an engaged, pointed takedown of the voodoo movie
After the frustrations of Bertrand Bonello’s blithe attitude towards pretty compelling ideas in 2016’s Nocturama, his latest film has such a precise engagement with its subject – the appropriation of culture on a mass scale as well as an intimate one – that it might as well have come from a different director.
Told in parallel are the stories of Haitian slave Clairvius in 1962 and schoolgirls Fanny and Mélissa in present-day France. Clairvius has recently died of pufferfish poisoning and been resurrected by sugarcane plantation owners to work. Escaping from his slave masters, he wonders the streets of Haiti not dead, but not quite alive: a zombi (the spelling is important). Meanwhile, Mélissa – also Haitian by blood and seemingly the only black girl at a private school for daughters of people awarded with French Legions of Honour – is attempting entry into a sorority of white girls that includes Fanny.
By the time the link between Clairvius and the two girls is revealed, it comes more as a confirmation of what the audience has already worked out by that point. More pressing matters are at hand. In the present-day narrative, Bonello re-contextualises a host of cultural references to Haitian voodoo, all tellingly from white artistic texts. Simultaneously, Clairvius’ story in 1962 plays like an anti-zombie movie. Bonello builds to violent outbursts of zombie rage and then pulls back before any blood can spill. The score sounds like a plinky, minimalist parody of John Carpenter’s scores.
Even Clairvius himself doesn’t look like a “proper” zombie. No putrid flesh hangs from his body, nor are his eyes hollow and unfeeling. He’s simply an empty version of his former self, though still a self with memories and desires – the zombie figure re-endowed with the significance and human weight that white culture took from it.
Zombi Child had its UK premiere at London Film Festival and is released on MUBI 18 Oct