Cannes 2019: Zombi Child Review
My time at Cannes has been bookended by two very different zombie experiences. The festival’s opening film, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, was an unsuccessful attempt to revive the B-movie in the director’s droll style, adding a lazy political commentary on climate change and consumerism on top. Bertrand Bonello also understands that the best zombie films act as allegories for society’s contemporary ills, and his latest film, Zombi Child, is something far more dense, and less easy to unpack after just one sitting. The spectres of colonialism and cultural appropriation are both lurking under the surface of his unusual foray into art-horror, which takes the very concept of the living dead back to its mythological roots in Haiti.
The roots of zombies (or zombi, as spelt in Creole) date back to the 20th century, where numerous cases of people returning from the dead were reported in Haiti. Bonello, an intellectually provocative filmmaker, understands that by taking the mythology back to its origins, he could be accused of cultural appropriation - so instead crafts his film around this very idea, tying the west’s adoption of a third world cultural specificity into a much larger critique of the damage done to countries already less fortunate than our own. It may have too many ideas to fully decipher after one sitting, and those expecting zombie thrills should definitely look elsewhere, but I can’t get the film’s pointed allegory out of my head.
The film opens in Haiti in 1962, in a section loosely based on real events. A man (Bijou Mackenson) returns from the dead after being given a voodoo potion, is dug up from his grave and sent to join hordes of the undead who work at sugar cane fields overnight. Flashing forward to the present day, at an exclusive boarding school in Paris, we meet Fanny (Louise Labeque), a rebellious teen who is increasingly lovelorn, lusting after the boy she met the previous summer. She welcomes Haitian immigrant Melissa (Wislanda Louimat) to her sorority, and after hearing Melissa make strange noises overnight, soon discovers that Melissa is a relative of a man who returned from the dead many years before. She tracks down Melissa’s aunt, and hopes that with the power of voodoo, she can gain a deeper spiritual connection to the boy she’s deeply in love with. Take a guess as to whether this ends well.
After his previous film, the excellent (but divisive) terrorism arable Nocturama, Bonello has made something that is thematically similar even if it appears entirely different. Beneath an ensemble piece about a diverse gang of teens who carry out terrorist attacks for no stated reason, the director weaved a commentary on mindless consumerism and the effects of a political establishment that made the pointed choice to overlook the struggles of the young. Zombi Child is similarly a critique on France’s socio-political history, that once again never sets an eye on those in charge. The film largely takes place in a boarding school exclusively for children whose parents have won the Legion of Honour (an honour largely reserved for military achievements), where the white children are increasingly uncomfortable by the sole Haitian girl’s culture, even as they are shown appropriating cultures beside their own. On one viewing, it’s undeniably striking, but hard to decipher a more detailed commentary that can’t be fully unpacked from provocative images alone; the white girls rapping a song by a black artist word for word, or the whole school made to perform a strange bow when authority appears, little different to the zombie movements and yet not a similar source of terror or critique for the children.
The film’s flashbacks to the sixties aren’t as involving, especially as the links between the two time frames become apparent all too early - still appearing mysterious even though it would be difficult for the audience not to decipher the connections between past and present. But they do help add further points to Bonello’s cultural critique, that could very likely be enriched upon repeat viewings, if not add new depth to what is already a striking critique on the evils of France’s past.