By Mónica Delgado
Zombi Child by Bertrand Bonello is a film made of cinema. Meaning, it’s soaked with a fantastic cinematographic legacy of over half a century, and, like the character in his film, rebuilds itself and brings it back to life in the middle of this Cannes film festival, through a tale that derives in a symbolic manifesto that looks to heal the barbarism of French colonization in Haiti. And Bonello doesn’t leave his guard down, quite the contrary; he has made the first great film I’ve seen in these past days. A must-see, which requires more than one viewing.
The film starts recreating a historical event from the mid-sixties of the past century in Haiti, which started a series of mythologies about zombies (narrations and films). Clavirius Narcisse was poisoned after drinking a potion made with the toxic balloon fish, which produced a paralysis and apparent dead. His body was unearthed and sold to a sugar plantation, where, along with other “zombies” like him, was taken as slave. In this first part, one can’t help but think of one of the first zombie films in history produced by Hammer, John Gilling’s 1966 The plague of the zombies, where precisely inhabitants of a town were converted in living dead to then be treated as cheap labor in a clandestine mine. It’s also inevitable to think of Wes Craven’s version about Narcisse, in The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) a film which also inspired Bonello (in his own words). Also, Bonello was inspired in the comic book Zombies, la vie au-delà de la mort by Philippe Charlier and Richard Guérineau. However, after this episode, Bonello takes us inside a catholic internship for adolescents, where he puts on a new process of “zombification”.
Fanny (Louise Labeque) is a student in a school for children of high class scholars, where she arrives after the earthquake in Haiti. There, she becomes part of a sisterhood which allows obscurantist games and rituals by candlelight. In parallel, Bonello keeps us still in the story of Clavirius Narcisse (Bijou Mackenson), who we see struggling against exploitation, until he gets his much desired freedom. Then Bonello brings this Haitian world of magic and voodoo to contemporary France, through mantras and drums. Little by little, timelines will cross with each other and will transform this school.
The most remarkable feat of Zombi Child is the way that Bonello structures this voyage to the past and takes the allegory of the zombie as a means for ethnographic inspection, to give account of this process of zombification as a symbolic translation of a French colonization in this country, which just recently, in the middle of the XXI century, can be exhumed, also with this metaphor of the internship that is invaded through healing rhythms.
Gorgeously shot, this film keeps placing Bonello in a special place in French cinema, and like his short film Sarah Winchester, shows that his bet for the fantastic exists to give it a restoring unique halo.
Quinzaine des Réalisateurs
Director, script: Bertrand Bonello
Cast: Louise Labeque, Wislanda Louimat, Adile David, Ninon Francois, Mathilde Riu, Bijou Mackenson, Katiana Milfort
Producers: Bertrand Bonello, Judity Lou Levy, Eve Robin
Cinematography: Yves Cape
Production design: Katia Wyszkop
Costume design: Pauline Jacquard
Editor: Anita Roth
Music: Bertrand Bonello
Casting: Marlene Serour, Ife Day
France, 2019, 103 mins