Bertrand Bonello writes & directs a genre defying story about teenage passion & the thin veil between life & death.
White people, particularly white Americans, might have hang-ups about sex, but it’s nothing compared to how squeamish we are about death. We talk about it in euphemisms, we’re uncomfortable with overt displays of grief. It’s as if we think that if we ignore it, maybe, somehow, it won’t come for us. Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child is an absorbing, often perplexing story in which traditional Haitian voodoo, a religion based in a healthy respect for death, crosses paths with a French schoolgirl.
The film opens in Haiti in 1962, where Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou) mysteriously falls ill and dies. Or rather, he becomes a zombi, and is forced into slave labor on a sugar plantation. This isn’t the decomposing, brain eating kind of zombie, however, but something rather more existentially bleak — a shell of the person’s former self, dead-eyed and only able to communicate in a low, keening moan. According to voodoo folklore, if a zombi consumes meat or salt, they can regain some of their old self. Clairvius does so, but, unable to return to his wife right away, is forced to wander, alone and lost. Interestingly, Clairvius is based on a real person, and his story was earlier fictionalized in Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow. Here, however, he’s more a figure of melancholy isolation than horror.
The second part of Zombi Child, inexplicably at first, takes place in the present, at a posh French boarding school. Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), the only black student there, fled her native Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, which killed her parents. Though her classmates aren’t outwardly rude to her, there’s a chilly distance there, whether it’s because she’s black or not wealthy or both, it doesn’t matter, isolation is isolation. Melissa does have one friend, Fanny (Louise Labeque, a dead ringer for Anna Paquin), who eventually brings her into the “literary society” she and her other friends have created, though their meetings mostly consist of messing around with makeup and listening to Belgian rapper Damso. The other girls in the group never really warm up that much to Melissa, but when you’re a teenager, sometimes just having people in your general vicinity is enough.
Any movie that features a privileged white teenager who believes she’s entitled to trespass in the veil between worlds just because her boyfriend dumped her gets points for audacity.
Fanny is both present and not, spending most of her time pining for Pablo, a boy we only see in her fantasies. Her letters to him are almost comically passionate, particularly for what was likely just a summer fling. Just by the fact that Fanny feels she has to lie in her letters about a beautiful classmate making a pass at her is ominous proof that she’s insecure about whether Pablo feels the same way about her. She doesn’t express these fears, or even talk about Pablo at all, to the other girls, maintaining the same sort of monotone, indifferent facade the rest of them do, whether they’re talking about grades, other classmates, or Melissa’s mysterious background.
Admittedly, not much happens in the first hour of Zombi Child. Much of the suspense, as it were, comes from trying to figure out how Clairvius’s story will eventually intersect with Melissa and Fanny’s. When a third plot involving Melissa’s Aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort), a voodoo priestess, is introduced more than halfway through the movie, you may find yourself getting a little impatient with where it’s going. They do merge, however, when a heartbroken Fanny, whose fears about Pablo come to pass, commits a shocking act of cultural appropriation, taking the plot in a jarring, hard left turn into horror.
Though Zombi Child is inconsistent in tone, and has an abrupt, somewhat unsatisfying ending, any movie that features a privileged white teenager who believes she’s entitled to trespass in the veil between worlds just because her boyfriend dumped her gets points for audacity. It also cleverly depicts Melissa struggling with her identity and her unique family history by having her deliberately take on some of the characteristics of a zombi, including that low, eerie moaning. In a way, she’s honoring her heritage, keeping herself grounded in an unfamiliar place. It’s no different than a teenager deciding to embrace Christianity, a religion based in the living rising from the dead. But for some reason, we just don’t like to talk about that.