French and Haitian cultures collide in Zombi Child | Movie Review | Chicago Reader

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French and Haitian cultures collide in Zombi Child

Filmmaker Bertrand Bonello blends his singular style with his fascination with voodoo for an exceptional film.

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French writer-director Bertrand Bonello is one of the best and most underrated filmmakers working today. Each feature since his 2011 film House of Tolerance, about a Parisian brothel in the early 1900s, exemplifies his uncommon ingenuity, from the revisionist biopic Saint Laurent (2014), based on the luxury French fashion designer's life, to the audacious and evocative Nocturama (2016), in which a group of French twentysomethings execute a series of terrorist attacks around Paris. His eighth feature, Zombi Child, feels smaller in scope compared to the three that precede it, and Bonello seems to recognize this. In an interview with Film Comment, he said he'd wanted to make a big feature, but since it wasn't easy to finance, he decided to make a small film instead. Still, it's accomplished and captivating. As in his best efforts, he exhibits a fervor and commitment toward his influences—in this case, a long-time fascination with Haiti and media about zombies and voodoo—that, combined with his singular approach, make for something exceptional.

The film opens in Haiti in 1962. A man (Mackenson Bijou) falls down dead in the street, gets resurrected as a zombie, and is forced to work on a sugar plantation with others of his kind. Bonello then cuts to a prestigious all-girls boarding school in present-day Paris, where a group of young girls, led by Fanny (Louise Labeque), welcomes Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) into their literary society. Mélissa, who comes from Haiti and whose parents died in the 2010 earthquake, gains entry into their group by reciting Rene Depestre's poem Cap'tain Zombi. She later tells the girls that her aunt Katy, with whom she lives outside the school, is a voodoo priestess, also known as a mambo. Bonello continues intertwining the narratives of the zombified man in 1960s Haiti and the girls in contemporary France. In languorous interludes, we see the former liberate himself from the sugar plantation, then visit his own grave and observe his wife from afar. At the school Fanny, Mélissa, and the rest of their group attend classes, listen to music, and hold secret, candle-lit meetings. In voice-over Fanny composes love letters to her boyfriend, Pablo, who's seen only in elusive, dreamlike sequences, and Mélissa begins doing odd things, such as making monster-like noises at night and telling Fanny she's going to eat her.

Bonello brings a distinct visual style to each film, and Zombi Child evidences not just one, but two of them. Working with cinematographer Yves Cape (who also shot Leos Carax's Holy Motors), Bonello shoots the Haiti sequences, often day-for-night, with an eye for the country's natural and spiritual wonders; he brings both an appreciation for French classicism and a critical view of its institutions to the boarding school sequences. The separate looks of the film mirror Bonello's dual focus on past and present, which begins to blur as he merges the narratives in the last third of the film. After Pablo breaks up with her, Fanny goes to see Mélissa's aunt, wanting first to forget Pablo but then to have his spirit enter her body. Back at the school, Mélissa tells the other girls about her grandfather, Clairvius Narcisse, the man in the other timeline, who also existed in real life. As Katy and Fanny's sequence descends into the film's only incident of true horror, the former having summoned the frightful loa (Voodoo god) Baron Samedi, Mélissa reveals that, eventually, Clairvius went back to his wife and had two daughters, her mother and aunt. Occuring at the same time in present-day Haiti is a ceremony honoring Clairvius on the anniversary of his second death.

Bonello's films often aestheticize politics, and this is no less the case with Zombi Child. He acknowledges the inherently appropriative nature of a white European director telling a story (at least in part) about a culture other than his own. In the aforementioned Film Comment interview, he said, "I had to find the right point of view for the story, because, of course, I'm not black—I'm French. So the film could not be set only in Haiti. You can't come in and say, 'Okay, I'm going to make a film about voodoo and zombies.' So I had to find a French point of view for the film."

Many of the parts set in contemporary France interrogate problematic elements of French identity; in one scene at the boarding school, a professor scrutinizes the exalted reputation of the French Revolution and the concept of a frustrated liberty that was never truly enacted. Bonello's appropriation of Haitian culture could be described as political in reverse; as opposed to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead or, more recently, Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die, zombism isn't a political metaphor here. Rather, Bonello seems intent on exploring zombiism and other aspects of voodoo culture earnestly, with reverence for its origins.

This is likely due to Bonello's deference to his cultural and artistic influences. The director previously worked with cinematheques to curate a series in conjunction with Nocturama, and now, concurrent with the theatrical release of Zombi Child, Quad Cinema in Manhattan is presenting a series of films, chosen by Bonello, that influenced his most recent work: Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie; Wes Craven's The Serpent and the Rainbow (which is loosely based on a book about Clairvius Narcisse); Maya Deren, Cherel Ito, and Teiji Ito's Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti; and Jean Rouch's The Mad Masters, among others. Bonello's veneration toward his influences, which also include various books on the subject of Haitian culture, recalls the ardor of Swiss master Jean-Luc Godard, whose passion for art and literature inflects each of his films. Bonello's reverence toward art and history along with his ability to filter both through his own frame of reference accounts for the filmmaker's mastery, and Zombi Child continues his ongoing demonstration of it.   v

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