Director: Bertrand Bonello
Stars: Wislanda Louimat, Mackenson Bijou, Louise Labeque,
“Listen, white world… as our dead roar…”
One of the more complacent – yet valid – truisms of western cinema might just be that the zombie movie has been “done to death”. And if overexposure hasn’t killed it on the big screen, The Walking Dead has left practically no room for maneuver on our televisions. French film director Bertrand Bonello therefore looks to other nations and, with Zombi Child, sees a new metaphor for the marching undead as futureless slaves.
Haiti, 1961. We watch a man, Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou), cursed with magics. He stumbles and dies right there in the street, only to be resurrected. Cut to the sugarcane fields and a line of stooped, stumbling slaves makes the link immutable. Here the undead are used for labour. Perceived as unthinking, yet forever threatening… its a stark and provocative game-changer for a genre on its last legs. Bonello’s preoccupation with how light falls on sugarcane almost surpasses Malick’s, while the content of the Haitian scenes can’t seem to help but recall Jacques Tourneur’s classic supernatural drama I Walked With A Zombie.
Flash to present day and we meet a group of French girls at a prestigious private school. All attendees must have a family member who was bestowed with the Legion of Honour. A sense of privilege and lineage that’ll receive a warped reflection later on. For now we focus in on a clique. They seem preoccupied with evaluating their peers from afar. As though assessing future subjects. Their nominal leader is Fanny (Louise Labeque). In voiceover we hear her letters to a distant paramore, confessing of her fantasies and conflicted emotions.
How do these disparate narratives intersect? Via the subject of Fanny’s curiosities. In order to initiate Haitian immigrant Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) – seemingly the lone black teenage at the school – into their group, the girls request she share an intimate secret. Mélissa’s story will ultimately connect the dots.
Mélissa’s ritual of meditation (part of her indoctrination into the clique; the girls are quite coven-like) involves listening to black music while sat in a ceremonial position. She makes nominal dance moves, including hand gestures that bring to mind a soaring bird. Later, hip-hop lyrics are sung along to by all of them. It brings to mind communal moments from Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, something only underscored when Sciamma’s record of choice – Rihanna’s “Diamond” – is name-checked only a few minutes later. Bonello, like Sciamma, seems interested in how teens are transported by and connect to popular music from black artists.
The girls’ codification of Mélissa raises a question, also, about how blackness is deemed especially desirable in some circles of white culture; itself another form of objectification, even if the intent is more benign. Not quite cultural appropriation, but more a desire that stems from the seemingly exotic. Fanny’s visit to Mélissa’s aunt – and her expectations – further fold into this. The danger comes when assumptions are made and not met…
“Listen, white world… negro blood runs…”
Bonello’s slow-motion montages of girls readying for bed reads as similar to the infantalisation of young women portrayed by Dario Argento in Suspiria. For Bonello, however, a cute chorus of hushed feminine voices on the soundtrack dispels any overt sexual aspect to his gaze. It is more as though he is celebrating them at this midway point of adolescence. At other times his camera feels slightly distanced, giving Zombi Child a sense of clinical voyeurism. A study in behaviour. It encourages viewing the film as part horror, part social documentary.
In keeping with this, a wry observation comes from the girls themselves. Laying out on a lawn on top of one another, hypnotised by their phones, one comments, “We look like corpses”. There’s a glint in Bonello’s eye from planting such a moment in a movie that identifies – or will be identified – as a horror.
This is resolutely, defiantly ‘not for everyone’ – Bonello favours a drip-feed of information, is happier setting and maintaining a tone or ruminating on a particularly beautiful camera set-up. Zombi Child is quiet, patient, contemplative. Restless attention spans will not be sated. But Bonello couldn’t care less. If you’re not prepared to participate, you’re not invited. That may sound elitist, but I fully endorse this approach to filmmaking, and I wish I saw its kind more often.
A tale of voodoo and secrets infecting the standard coming-of-age narratives we’ve come to expect; Zombi Child is a singular experience. My only question is whether its really Bonello’s tale to tell…
“Listen, white world… to my zombi roar…”