An overall fascinating if strange concoction that tackles big ideas of history, politics and culture, but not always in any purposeful direction.
Dir. Bertrand Bonello
2019 | France | Drama | 103 mins | 1.85:1 | French & Haitian
Not rated (likely to be at least NC16 for some mature themes and sexual references)
Cast: Louise Labeque, Wislanda Louimat, Katiana Milfort
Plot: Haiti, 1962. A man is brought back from the dead to work in the hell of sugar cane plantations. 55 years later, a Haitian teenager tells her friends her family secret – not suspecting that it will push one of them to commit the irreparable.
Awards: Directors’ Fortnight Official Selection & Nom. for Queer Palm (Cannes)
International Sales: Memento Films
Subject Matter: Moderate/Slightly Dark
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed on screener)
As far as contemporary French filmmakers are concerned, Bertrand Bonello certainly ranks as one of the most provocative, having raised eyebrows early on with The Pornographer (2001), and later with films like House of Tolerance (2011) and Nocturama (2016).
In his latest work, Zombi Child, he continues that spirit—though one might use the term spirit here more cautiously because this is after all a film that has some allusions to the supernatural—giving us quite a terrific head-scratcher, filled with so many ideas that it is impossible to make sense of them all without a second viewing.
Not that Bonello’s film is compellingly rewatchable, considering that it works primarily in the abstract, where symbols and tones intersect with more concrete themes of politics and culture, both of which are embedded in time. Time is crucial in the understanding of Zombi Child as a meditation on temporal juxtapositions—after all, and as you will see, the film is broken up into two main timelines.
The first one brings us back to Haiti in the 1960s, where the black locals labouriously toil the plantations, many of whom are male ‘zombis’ (note: it’s not ‘zombies’ as we know them in popular culture), who have been pronounced dead but remain (barely) alive. As they are revived (if also only barely), they become medically-induced slaves with no emotions or thinking capacity—and intriguingly governed by other male blacks.
On the other hand, the contrasting timeline—and this is a huge contrast in every way—brings us forward to an all-girls school in present day France. It is an elite, mostly all-white school, founded by the great Napoleon Bonaparte no less, where the parents of students are all Legion of Honour holders.
It is this black-white-past-present contrast that gives Zombi Child some semblance of a narrative, though to be honest, Bonello’s film while fascinating and certainly strange as a cinematic experience remains lost in its mystery.
Some viewers may find that it lacks any purposeful direction, but what the film does well is to create uncanny connections in space and time that draw broad intellectual pickings on the impact of colonialism, and how the spirit of voodoo as a longstanding cultural practice can shed light on what it means to access the darkest parts of one’s psyche—and by extension, a peoples’ haunting political history.