TIFF 2019 Dispatch #6: “Zombi Child” Vividly Explores Colonialism’s Legacy Through Zombie Folklore

TIFF 2019 Dispatch #6: “Zombi Child” Vividly Explores Colonialism’s Legacy Through Zombie Folklore September 12, 2019

Here’s a film critic life hack, free of charge:  a year or two ago, I finally admitted that my memory cannot reliably retain the names of must-see movies that I read about in print media or online forums.  To help me, my laptop now holds a running list of these films, which I then erase as I see them.

So make yourself a list and put Zombi Child on it, for this is a film unlike any other I can recall.  A horizon-expander, it explores numerous subjects without dictating how to think about them.  It’s beautiful, haunting, strange.

After a title quoting Haitian poet René Depestre’s “Cap’tain Zombi,” a mourning wail over the legacy of slavery and colonialism, Zombi Child begins in Haiti, 1962.  Through a vivid set of cut scenes that includes a dark interior shot of dirt thudding onto a coffin, we witness the transformation of a man named Clairvius into a zombie.

Mackenzon Bijou, as Clairvius, in “Zombi Child”

But these are not the brain-eating killers of George Romero or The Walking Dead.  Writer/director Bertrand Bonello has done his homework, and, in my judgment, respects Haitian traditions and beliefs.  So, when Clairvius awakens with no memory and no capacity for speech, he is forced to work sugarcane fields by night.

Zombi Child then leaps to present-day Paris, to an elite girls’ boarding school for descendants of Legion of Honor recipients.  (Yes, this is a real thing.)  Here, the film focuses upon two high schoolers, a Haitian girl named Mélissa and her white friend Fanny.

Fanny is the alpha of a quartet of girls who pretentiously call their clique a “literary sorority.”  (All we see them do in actuality is sneak out of their beds at night, drink liquor illicitly, gossip about teachers, and sing along with rap tunes.)  Fanny has befriended newcomer Mélissa and encourages her sorority pals to add her to their membership.

Zombi Child proceeds to leap back and forth between the narratives in Haiti and France, only making explicit the full connection between the storylines late in the film.  Clairvius awakens and escapes his work crew.  We see his haunting profile on mountain tops; later, he skulks and hides on streets in the town where he was zombified.

Meanwhile in France, voiceover letters from Fanny to her boyfriend Pablo use zombie language to express her emptiness without him (“I’m a soulless body in the night”).  The other, all-white sorority girls are fascinated and repelled by Mélissa’s otherness, researching Haitian folklore furtively.

Louise Labeque (Fanny) and Wislanda Louimat (Mélissa), in “Zombi Child”

Through this inclusion/exclusion dichotomy, Bonello critiques his own society’s white privilege.  Mélissa’s mother earned her Legion of Honor award by fighting the Duvalier dictatorship, before dying in the devastating earthquake of 2010.  So Mélissa probably merits her place at the school more than most of her classmates.  But if a non-white person can’t be accepted into such elite society, what does it say about non-whites in the rest of France?

Besides the already-cited poem, Bonello craftily inserts ideas from other intellectuals, which are then interrogated by events in his film.  In the first scene at the boarding school, a bloviating history teacher quotes seminal 19th Century historian Jules Michelet, who boasted of France’s gift to the world in the form of the Revolution of 1789.  Of course, this “gift,” like the American Revolution, came with a hell of a cost to the native peoples and slaves in the lands colonized.

Even the juxtaposition of locations carries significance.  The Legion of Honor boarding school is a gorgeous place, with stone cloisters and classic statuary tucked away in storerooms.  Yet, these top-quality schools were founded by Napoleon, the emperor who fought to keep Haiti under France’s thumb.

I could continue to expound on the ideas this film offers, but I’ll stop shortly.  Zombi Child explores notions of cultural appropriation; it considers the importance of folklore for the disenfranchised, as a way to remember and mourn lives cut short prematurely.

Bonello elicits just-right performances from all of his leads.  Mackenzon Bijou, the Haitian actor playing the zombie, earns our sympathy for his pitiable state.  Louise Labeque, as Fanny, conveys the in-the-moment suffering over the slings and arrows of adolescent misfortune.  And Wislanda Louimat, playing Mélissa with a blunted emotional palette, is an ideal Rorschach for her peers’ projections.

I’ve never doubted that Bonello is a superb film stylist.  His preceding film, Nocturama, was a sonic and visual feast, though its stasis and insufficient character development made it a slog for me.  With Zombi Child, his ninth feature, he’s achieved a near-perfect synthesis of style, story, character, and ideas.


(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )


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