LFF 2019: Zombi Child Review
The legend goes that in 1962, a Haitian man called Clairvius Narcisse unexpectedly died, received a burial and returned to live with his family 18 years later. Apparently his brother had used a voodoo preparation to kill him due to a dispute over their deceased father’s land. Shortly after being laid to rest, Clairvius was dug up and used as a slave worker by a voodoo witch before eventually finding his way home.
It’s a story that serves as the basis for director Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child – which like his previous drama, Nocturama, has big ideas – but falls horribly short in terms of execution. The title may lend itself more towards genre filmmaking, but don’t be misled, as it is ironically as lifeless as the title suggests. Bonello uses the living dead as a half-realised allegory about cultural appropriation and the history of French colonisation, in a drearily-paced film that makes hard work of its 90 minute runtime.
Starting off with Narcisse’s story in 1962, we see him die, resurrected and sent to work in a sugarcane plantation. Meanwhile, in the present day, we join two girls at a privileged, largely all-white, girl’s school. After sitting in their history class listening to the teacher laboriously explain the themes of the film, we learn new student Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), a girl of Haitian descent, is keen to join her best friend Fanny’s (Louise Labèque) small sorority. She is accepted into the group and when they learn her aunt is a voodoo priestess their fascination goes a little too far.
The link between Narcisse and the teenagers doesn’t at first seem apparent, with Bonello splitting screen time between the two periods. The former is revealed largely without dialogue, following a man broken free of a spell and left wandering through the Haitian countryside. Back at school, we are asked to endure long stretches of flat discussions between the girls that would test the patience of a saint, a result of Bonello drawing parallels between slavery, Narcisse and their own zombification.
During term-time they are told when to eat, sleep and study and are given little room to do anything outside of the rules. They dress in identical uniforms and perform the same rituals as part of school tradition. The girls speak with no emotion, coming alive to lyrics disconnected from their own reality, and only Fanny’s lovesick pining hints at more, which eventually leads to something far darker.
The finale does eventually spring to life, although it almost reaches levels of parody such is the ridiculousness of events. Unlike much of the film these sequences at least have purpose and a sense of commitment, which is a problem that Bonello can’t seem to overcome. 2016’s Nocturama experienced many of the same issues – talking loud without saying much at all. Zombi Child is a repeat of those same failures and as a result barely has a pulse worth saving.
You can read more of our LFF coverage here.