TIFF 2019: Zombi Child, by David Bax
Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child is a fictionalized retelling of the account of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who claimed to have been given a poison in 1962 that caused him to appear dead and then “resurrected” by men who enslaved the barely conscious Narcisse on a sugar farm. In addition to this tale, Bonello also tells a purely fictional one about Narcisse’s granddaughter Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), who attends a present day Catholic girls’ boarding school in France.
Zombi Child‘s Haiti-set portions hew close to Narcisse’s account. It will be up to Haitians to decide if these scenes, filmed in Haiti, traffic in offensive stereotypes but it would be ironic if they did, as so much of the present-day storyline damns the reflexive othering of that culture by European and European-descended Westerners. Bonello is far from subtle with these allegories. Melissa is invited by her friend Fanny (Louise Labeque) to join a secret club at the school. The fact that Fanny is more the protagonist of this part of the story than Melissa is no accident; Bonello is illustrating how the white world treats culture and society as their dominions, into which they will be gracious enough to invite others should they be deemed acceptable. When Melissa is told to “Take time to think” about joining the club, the sentiment is quickly followed by “Not centuries.” Sure, that’s true to a teenager’s sarcastic exaggerations but “centuries” is how long people like Melissa have been under the thumb of people like Fanny and her friends.
Zombi Child is not all lecturing, though, even if the boarding school scenes do include lengthy depictions of actual lectures. Bonello has fun, too (as long as you subscribe to the director’s sometimes sadistic interpretation of the word), especially with the juxtaposition of ritual. Haitian voodoo practices are shown in detail yet the film conspicuously sidesteps the chance to compare them to the boarding school’s Catholic trappings in favor of showing us the rituals that actually matter to its students, particularly those of grooming and beautification. A shot of a girl handling a blowdryer that looks intentionally designed to resemble a snake is laughter-inducing.
Bonello, whose 2011 sex worker revenge tale House of Tolerance remains one of the best films of the decade, tends to be at his strongest when he is so shamelessly bold that he approaches the trashy. Zombi Child gets there in its final act when, despite avoiding the George Romero version of zombies, it veers directly into full blown horror movie territory. The climax, when the voodoo element of the story enters the present day, is legitimately freaky and terrifying.
Perhaps this would have felt like a more thoroughly considered film, though, if he’d gotten there earlier. As it is, Zombi Child, while never quite boring, remains less than the sum of its parts, two halves in search of a whole.