Teen trifles clash with sacred traditions and powerful voodoo in Bertrand Bonello’s diasporic meditation

Rhys Handley on Bertrand Bonello’s ‘Zombi Child’ (2019)

Western fascination with the zombie, or zombi, can be traced back to the sensationalist accounts of occultist (and cannibal) W.B. Seabrook in his book The Magic Island (1929). Western cinema’s fascination, in turn, begins with Victor Halperin’s Bela Lugosi-starring adaptation White Zombie (1932). From its origins as a loaded symbol of white fascination with Haitian voodoo traditions, it has over decades been shorn of any racial or cultural connotations.

In his latest feature Zombi Child, director Bertrand Bonello attempts to reckon with the colonialist appropriation of this undead myth-making and repatriate the zombi within the legacy of voodoo ritualism and Haitian tradition from which it stems. Himself a white Frenchman at the helm of a film preoccupied with blackness, femininity and indeed black femininity, Bonello’s observations and declarations are finicky and uncomfortable, but captivating nonetheless.

Spanning parallel timelines across oceans, Bonello’s story traces the heritage of Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou), a Haitian struck down by plague, but condemned to slave labour when he is resurrected and cursed into a compliant, zombified state. Unlike our collective understanding of the zombie in the Romero mould, Clairvius retains a semblance of consciousness and coherence, but struggles desperately and sincerely to rediscover his former self.

These 60s-set Haiti passages of the film are given space to breathe in the uncertain silence and natural ambiance of the fields Clairvius is commissioned to sow. His repetitive, dehumanising plight has room to make his longing for humanity palpable — he strains for sunlight and for the taste of real food with aching desperation that Bijou skilfully emanates within the character’s restrictive emotive range. The tactility of nature against his skin, and the soft audio aura of the world around him creeping back into view, are vividly realised with acute cinematography and sound design working in harmony to immerse us in Clairvius’ pain.

As Clairvius silently wends his way back to lucidity and belonging, Bonello more frequently turns his attention to the present day. Larger portions of the film are dedicated to a soapy teen drama at play in a prestigious Parisian girls’ school, where Louise Labeque’s willowy, distracted Fanny becomes drawn to the quiet mystique of Clairvius’ granddaughter Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat).

Having left Haiti following a devastating flood, Mélissa lives with her aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort) in France and keeps to herself amid the politics and jostling of school life. Her heritage as the descendant of a zombi is something she holds close, but her inexplicable behaviours court the fascination of lovelorn Fanny and her cadre in what plays out as something of a modern retelling of Seabrook’s original, colonialist text.

Fanny dreams longingly of a summer boyfriend she longs to be with again, wishing away the days until the boarding school breaks term once again. We are introduced to Mélissa through Fanny’s eyes, as her voiceovers detail both her romantic longing for her sweetheart and also her fetishistic, hungry captivation with Mélissa’s ghostly stoicism and the strange noises she makes in her sleep. Louimat’s unwavering, ephemeral neutrality here is unsettling and enticing.

As Fanny and her friends welcome Mélissa into their group, and layers are peeled away from all the girls’ façades, Bonello begins to manifest a preoccupation with rituals — be it the traditional voodoo chants and dances he cross-cuts to in 60s Haiti or the hazing practices and shared devotion to trap music that charts Mélissa’s induction into the inner circle. Bonello observes the young girls’ practices and voodoo spirituality with the same reverence, drawing on the sense of belonging and identity which comes from shared customs.

With belonging comes honesty, and in revealing hers and her aunt’s ancestry to the girls, western opportunism rears its head in deadly ways — leading to the film’s most arresting, but questionable turns in its latter third. Fanny sees in Mélissa and Kate, who is a revered and powerful voodoo practitioner, a way to rectify her lovesickness through magical means. Groundwork carefully laid by Bonello to awaken the viewer to the diasporic implications of the zombi myth and the general co-opting of voodoo culture in the west comes into play as Fanny charges ahead with her frivolous desires.

Flexing a hitherto unseen propensity for horror, Bonello deploys an expansive toolkit of sound, lighting, montage and production design to realise the chaotic terror that ensues when Fanny comes to Kate naively seeking aid from the unknowable dark arts in spite of her own ignorance of its historical weight. What unfolds is violent, visceral and chilling — though Bonello loses sight of both character and theme in the cavalcade in such a way that powerful and sensitive ideas around Eurocentrism and cultural fetishisation are to some extent lost.

Mélissa and Kate carry the legacy of Clairvius as both a burden and an honour, and their loaded interactions with Fanny pulsate with a significance that is not fully explored. In looping back to Clairvius and his longing for peace, Bonello ties his threads together with an uneasy, saccharine flavour, bringing closure where the discussion should be open-ended and showing us the fallout without fully contending with its consequences. The zombi could be repatriated, yes, but will the whims of an ignorant west allow it to ever truly go home?

Zombi Child screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival and is showing on MUBI 18th October 2019.

Rhys Handley

By Rhys Handley

Rhys Handley is a journalist and film critic currently reading Film Studies MA at King's College London. He has appeared in Sight & Sound, One Room with a View, CineVue, and Vague Visages.