MUBI UK film review: Zombi Child
Challenging mosaic of narratives8
Oneiric view of adolescent rites8
Anton Bitel | On 06, Oct 2019
Director: Bertrand Bonello
Cast: Louise Labeque, Wislanda Louimat, Mackenson Bijou, Katiano Milfort, Ninon François, Mathilde Riu, Patrick Boucheron
Watch Zombi Child online in the UK: MUBI UK
Read our interview with director Bertrand Bonello
Long-distance relationships are at the heart of Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child. There is Fanny (Louise Labeque), a pupil at an élite Parisian boarding school for girls, who expresses her love and longing for absent boyfriend Pablo (Sayyid El Alami) through erotic text messages whose words regularly punctuate the film in infatuated voice-over. There are the family connections that the school’s pupils – all descended from recipients of the Légion d’honneur – are expected to embody and pass on to the next generation. Then there are the occasionally strange behaviours exhibited by Fanny’s Haitian fellow pupil, Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) – behaviours that might just link her directly to her long-deceased grandfather Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou), who in 1962 was turned into a zombi by a malicious Voodoo bokor (or sorceror), and (after years working on a plantation in a state of drugged amnesia) eventually returned home to his wife. And then there is Mélissa’s aunt, Katy (Katiana Milfort), a mambo who gives regular news updates from Paris to her dead Haitian ancestors, and who stays in touch with Mélissa by phone.
The film switches between Clairvius’ story in 20th-century Haiti and Fanny’s and Mélissa’s story in 21st-century Paris, challenging viewers to find the lost connections between these disparate narratives. “France is guilty of trying to free the world 50 years ago,” says one of the girls’ teachers (Patrick Boucheron) near the beginning of the film in a tentative discussion of liberty, revolution and the difficulty in confronting the failures of history. Several centuries earlier, Haiti itself, then known as Saint-Domingue, had been under French rule; the sugar cane plantations Clairvius – pharmaceutically deprived of his freedom and autonomy – would later harvest were originally planted by the French and worked by African slaves. Accordingly, everything here represents the hidden, resonant connections of modern France to its unresolved colonial past.
In a prestigious school where Mélissa is conspicuously the only black pupil, she still bears her ancestral history even if she has turned her back on it, as the African culture, religion and language – which are, via severed Haitian roots, her inheritance – still re-echo in her dislocated, alienated present. Fanny first befriends Mélissa over their shared taste in horror movies – but when Fanny discovers Mélissa’s connections to a real zombi and to a Voodoo priestess, she tries to exploit this magic to her own selfish ends. This act of transgressive appropriation will see long-distance lines getting crossed between different cultures, chronologies and spiritual planes, with African-Haitians once again paying the price for white folly. It is a strange snapshot of France’s adolescent present (and future) collapsed into the past, as ideas and behaviours believed long dead are disinterred and return home.
Zombi Child is available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription, until 17th November.