Bertrand Bonello’s latest film ‘Zombi Child’ is a haunting tale of colonialism and faith in a higher power of any kind
Nothing about Zombi Child is designed to ease the viewers into Bertrand Bonello’s askew vision. It opens in Haiti in 1962 as an unseen character prepares a Vodou spell before giving it to a random man. That man collapses in the middle of the street, dead. The man’s family holds a funeral, and he is buried. And then not long after we see the same man enslaved in the middle of the field, under a lightless sun.
And then we cut to 2019 and a classroom in a modern French high school as a lecturer explains how historiography (the study of how we talk about history) works in a classically liberal setting, using the French Revolution as an example. Soon enough we learn that four of the girls in this class are also in a bit of a cult. They invite a fifth girl named Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) into the group. She has some secrets relating to her Haitian family, a country she was forced to flee after the earthquake took her parents’ lives and more. And all of this is without mentioning the undercurrent of modern French politics, colonialism in Haiti, the girl group ring leader Fanny (Louise Labeque), Fanny’s strange letters to a lover, and more.
But frankly, if you go into Zombi Child expecting a clear narrative then you are preparing yourself for defeat. Nothing about Bertrand Bonello’s filmography, including the phenomenal Nocturama from 2017 or previous New York Film Festival entry Saint Laurant, holds your hand. The director/screenwriter/producer/composer builds a film that seems to thrive off of bringing you along on a journey. So while portions of Zombi Child feel almost pulled from deleted scenes of American Horror Story: Coven, they play out here in a completely different light because of the bizarre atmosphere that Bonello constructs.
The smartest tricks the film pulls is making you crave more of the Vodou practices that it pushes forward at the beginning. You know something is coming, but you don’t know how or when. A sudden appearance of a new character nearly an hour into the film with her own perspective on the events we have seen promises more of the mysticism. With another reveal, the audience realizes that in truth Vodou is not much different from any other kind of religion, save for how it is practiced. Indeed, demystification happens to the belief system, but still the foreboding is there in the depths of the narrative.
The biggest problem I have with Zombi Child is in how it handles the political context of 1960s Haiti compared to modern France. Bonello draws a fairly one-to-one connection between the two in terms of how people with power treat those without, but it’s a bit too clean. Furthermore, the climax of the film is a lot less visually dynamic compared to the rest of the work. It’s just a bit too pure. Furthermore, the treatment of white teenage girls in France in the film is simplistic (they like selfies and boys!) compared to the far more interesting work in Nocturama and on the Haitian sides of the story.
Zombi Child is a hard-to-approach film, and I recommend going in as blind as you can. But prepare yourself for a deep and dark look into the roots of slavery in the past 60 years of human history, as well as the modern ways we still treat Black people in France and beyond. Vital barely begins to cover it.
Zombi Child will be released in 2020 by Film Movement