Never one to shy away from audacious conceits, from a Moody Blues needle-drop in a late-19th century Parisian brothel in “House of Pleasures” to the sympathetic treatment of terrorist radicals in “Nocturama,” French director Bertrand Bonello returns with a brow-raising one in “Zombi Child,” a political horror film that bundles the sins of colonialism with those of mischievous boarding-school girls. Alternating between a fact-based case of zombieism in 1962 Haiti and a clique of privileged students in contemporary France, the film brings the legacy of Haitian suffering and hardship to the doorstep of a Legion of Honor school with ties to the Napoleonic age. Though Bonello eventually reveals a more concrete bridge between eras,
Though the story of Clairvius Narcisse is largely considered more legend than fact, he was a real Haitian man who supposedly turned into a zombie in 1962 and rematerialized in 1980 in perfectly normal health. The likely catalyst of his transformation was tetrodotoxin, the paralyzing venom found in pufferfish and incorporated into voodoo ritual. Opening the film with a shot of Clairvius (Bijou Mackenson) carving up the notorious fish, Bonello isn’t interested in exploring the veracity of the claim because more can be accomplished by accepting it at face value. Whether he’s under the influence of psychotropics or the supernatural, Clairvius is nonetheless reduced to dead-eyed laborer, available day or night to hack away in the country’s sugarcane fields.
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Just as the audience settles in for a metaphorical treatment of Caribbean exploitation, Bonello jumps ahead to an all-girls school in present-day France, where descendants of former graduates are expected to matriculate into the ranks of the country’s elite. Until then, however, they behave like typical teenagers. When she’s not pining for her boyfriend at another school, Fanny (Louise Labèque) and her friends preside over an unofficial literary sorority, which is mostly an excuse to drink gin and gossip in the library after hours. Fanny’s latest recruit is Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), a new student of Haitian descent who moved to Paris to live with her aunt (Katiana Milfort), a voodoo “mambo,” after her parents died in the 2010 earthquake.
It’s not terribly difficult to anticipate how these two stories will intersect, despite the distance of several decades and the Atlantic Ocean between them, which is one of the problems with “Zombi Child.” Bonello’s conceit may be surprising, but it doesn’t take long to lock into what he intends to say; in fact, the very first scene in the boarding school is a long history lecture that spells out the themes as if to prepare viewers for a pop quiz afterwards. Bonello has crafted a kind of grisly revenge fantasy where the seeds of French colonialism bear bitter fruit far into the future, and Fanny’s desire to use voodoo to her own ends opens up a pointed front on cultural appropriation, too. But the film can feel worked-over and schematic, as if Bonello was too preoccupied with serving the thesis to trust his peerless intuition.
“Zombi Child” excels whenever Bonello and his cinematographer, Yves Cape, give themselves over to exotic ritual and mesmeric imagery, which mostly favors the scenes set in Haiti. The film isn’t obligated to demythologize the Clairvius Narcisse story so it does the opposite, fully investing in the notion that he moaned and stumbled through the island’s streets and sugarcane fields, caught in a strange, nightmarish purgatory between the living and the dead. His zombified state feeds into the impression of a subjugated people as subhuman, useful for slave labor under threat of the lash, but otherwise not worth acknowledging. Zombies in other movies frighten the living; here, they go almost completely unnoticed.
As usual with Bonello, the surface elements are transfixing and cool, including an electronic score that sounds like art-damaged John Carpenter and a soundtrack speckled with French rap songs. “Zombi Child” feels like a pre-fab cult movie, or at least Bonello’s attempt at an eccentric genre twist like Claire Denis’ “Trouble Every Day.” But his previous films are not so predigested in their conclusions, much less in how they arrive at them. He’s usually the wildest card in the deck.