The dead do not pursue the living or delight in human entrails in "Zombi Child", Bertrand Bonello's pleasantly temperamental and politically barbed riff, according to Haitian voodoo tradition. Instead, they are cruelly dug out of the land, revived with poisons and psychoactive drugs and forced into an arduous post-slavery life of slavery on the plantations. "What did I do to deserve this?" one of them cries when he cuts pieces of sugar cane and he doesn't really know. The zombies' memories, as well as the lives and loved ones they knew, are lost forever.
But not necessarily for us. For Bonello, one of the most formal and intellectually adventurous directors working in France today ("Saint Laurent", "House of Pleasures"), making and watching a film can be an act of remembrance. In this one, he tells the story of Clairvius Narcisse (played by Mackenson Bijou), a Haitian who was subjected to zombification in real life in 1962. We saw his nameless tormentor from the beginning, in the extraction of puffer venom, an ingredient in the solution that , once administered to Clairvius, will induce an unconsciousness similar to death, leading to his living burial and forced resurrection as a slave.
Whether this really happened or not – the possibilities were scientifically supported and unmasked – is of little importance to Bonello. He dramatizes the episode with dry matter, treating it as a chance to recover horror as a story (and vice versa), and to show that the two are more aligned than we think. But this is not the only dialectic that gives this film its complicated and deceptively illusory form. Suspended in an uncomfortable uneasy realm between historical criticism and the teenage outbreak "Carrie", but with most of the blood and drained bumps, "Zombi Child" seeks to interrogate the bitter legacy of French colonialism, from its brutal applications in the past to its spiritual and psychological reverberations in the present.
The story alternates between Haiti in 1962, where Clairvius wanders silently through the fields and forests of sugar cane at night, and today France, where his strange and sad legacy is manifested in the lives of two teenagers. Fanny (Louise Labèque) is quiet but resolute, with a sad and solemn look that says more than her words, and a long-distance boyfriend (Sayyid El Alami), which we see only in strange and dreamlike visions. She is attracted to the even more taciturn Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), one of the few black students at the elite boarding school, founded by Napoleon for the education of girls whose parents and grandparents received the Legion of Honor.
As in "Nocturama", his disturbing 2016 thriller about a millennium terrorist gang, Bonello maintains a tireless focus on the codes and rituals of contemporary youth. He seems genuinely interested in the sports these teenagers play, the music they listen to, the movies they watch (some of them zombie movies) and the walls they build and hide behind. Melissa, meanwhile, gradually opens up to Fanny and the other girls in her circle. They listen very carefully as she tells how she emigrated from Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, which took her parents' lives, leaving her in the care of her kind aunt (a strong Katiana Milfort), a voodoo priestess.
Louise Labèque and Wislanda Louimet in the film "Zombi Child".
There is even more to Mélissa's story, as she reveals when she recites a few lines from a poem by René Despestre: “Listen, white world; hear my zombie voice. Your friends are impressed and intimidated, and maybe a little punished. But Fanny is fascinated and encouraged by Mélissa's voodoo connection, and what she does next goes beyond the limits of polite curiosity, exploring Mélissa's identity for reasons as ignorant as it is selfish.
You can imagine the unpleasant ending that Fanny can expect in a more genre-oriented version of this film. But Bonello seems more understanding than accusatory, perhaps because he knows that, as a white French artist, he is as much a cultural stranger as Fanny, even though he is also a smarter and more sensitive. And although he is duly fascinated by the sights and sounds of the voodoo ritual, he has little interest in turning it into some kind of exhibition of "black magic", another scary horror show.
Bonello is always thought provoking, although he can also be terribly outspoken about his desire to provoke thoughts. An opening scene with a French professor, teaching his class about the sins of imperialism and the difference between freedom and liberalism, seems to arrive directly at the thematic points of the film. But "Zombi Child" never becomes a didactic treatise. The contrasts between its two parallel lines are clear enough to see: between darkness and light, between the terrifying night poetry of Clairvius' journey and the more direct progress of Fanny and Mélissa's story. In other respects, the film resists easy classification, especially when we discover the truth about the culprits behind Clairvius' mockery, complicating what looked like a direct racial animus story.
Even when the image escapes its narrative comprehension, its esteemed skill – evident in the shadows of Yves Cape's photography and in the somber environment of the score, which Bonello composed himself – exerts its own hypnotic force. The director's talent, as always, is based on avoiding the obvious. The cautionary implications of the story are easy to see (don't mess with what you don't understand), but among the most peculiar surprises in this zombie movie is the upbeat and romantic note that ends. The story goes on and so does life – although as Clairvius Narcisse knew it as well as anyone, not always as you expected.
& # 39; Zombie Child & # 39;
In French and Haitian with English subtitles
Runtime: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: Nuart Theater in West Los Angeles