'Zombi Child': Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A fresh if tangled take on a well-tread genre.

French director Bertrand Bonello ('Saint Laurent') tries his hand at horror, or something approaching it, in a new feature that premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes.

Applying his meticulous aesthetic and enigmatic narration to a genre typically marked by lots of blood, guts and brain-munching mayhem, French auteur Bertrand Bonello (Saint Laurent, Nocturama) takes a stab — or is that a chainsaw or a shotgun — at the zombie movie for his eight feature, which debuted at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes.

Entitled Zombi Child, with the z-word spelled in its original Creole, the film brings us back to the roots of a major contemporary pop culture phenomenon that actually has its origins in Haiti, where alleged cases of voodoo-induced zombiedom were documented during the last century. If that were the whole story, Bonello may have wound up with an intriguing and rather beautifully realized study of a “real-life” zombie who wakes from his spell and tries to sadly shuffle his way back home. Instead, he decided to combine that plot with another one entirely, involving a coterie of teenage girls — one of whom may be a zombie as well — living in a state-sponsored boarding school outside of Paris.

The result feels like two incomplete movies in one, neither of them fully satisfying in the end. Still, there are some graceful moments scattered throughout, especially in the Haitian sequences, while it’s also rather refreshing to see a brand new take on a subject that’s been worked to death elsewhere. A few art-house pickups should follow the film’s premiere on the Croisette, though it’s unlikely that many outfits specializing in genre fare will, um, take a bite.

In the compelling opening scenes, set in Haiti in 1962, we follow what looks like the realistic transformation of a man — named Clairvius (Bijou Mackenson) and based on a person who really existed — into a living-dead spectre when someone slips him a voodoo potion. Dug up after his funeral, Clairvius joins a chain gang of zombies who work the sugarcane fields at night, existing in a state of semi-consciousness slavery.

At the same time, we follow the parallel story of Fanny (Louise Labeque), a rebellious teenage girl who attends one of France’s Legion of Honor boarding schools, which are dedicated to the children and grandchildren of those who have received the prestigious national award. Along with classmates Salome (Adile David), Romy (Ninon Francois) and Adele (Mathilde Riu), Fanny presides over a secret sorority about to recruit its newest member: the recent transplant Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), who hails from Haiti and moved to France after the 2010 earthquake killed her parents.

Cutting systematically back and forth between the two narrative arcs, Bonello, who wrote the script and also composed the music, shows how what happened to Clairvius back in the 1960s will gradually find its way to present-day France, with Melissa revealing signs of zombieness herself. (We learn at one point that she is actually Clairvius’ granddaughter and that her aunt (Katiana Milfort) is a voodoo mambo, or sorceress.)

The sequences in Haiti, which follow Clairvius after he manages to regain control of his body, escape from the chain gang and head back to his native town, are filled with moments of dark, contemplative beauty, focusing on the strange catatonic state that zombies — or whatever you want to call them — find themselves in. Bonello also mixes in a few details about Haitian history, drawing interesting parallels between the supernatural phenomenon and the country’s long and troubled past: Isn’t being a slave, after all, not unlike being the living-dead prisoner of a colonial power?

It’s possible that Bonello could have fashioned an entire film out of such material, but instead he chose to focus more on the teen movie plot in the second half, which plays like a cross between The Craft and the director’s own Nocturama, including the use of trap music (by French rap artists Damso and Kalash) as a soundrack to the girl’s subversive behavior. The voodoo arc does tie the two plotlines together toward the end, but in a way that feels forced and fairly ridiculous, as if Bonello were just trying to make a regular horror flick after all.

Given the promise of the pitch, it’s too bad Zombi Child never provides the genuine scares of a genre movie nor fully explores the Haitian mythology at its core, floating somewhere between the two — the same way that Clairvisius floats between the living and the dead. On the other hand, Bonello’s exquisite use of craft, including poetic day-for-night photography by Yves Cape (Holy Motors) and a strong electro-rock score, is definitely a plus, creating an ambiance that bewitchingly accompanies the action. But it’s not quite enough to compensate for a story (or stories) that may have some viewers zombying out before the film is over.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Production companies: My New Picture, Les Films du Bal
Cast: Louise Labeque, Wislanda Louimat, Adile David, Ninon Francois, Mathilde Riu, Bijou Mackenson, Katiana Milfort
Director, screenwriter: Bertrand Bonello
Producers: Bertrand Bonello, Judity Lou Levy, Eve Robin
Director of photography: Yves Cape
Production designer: Katia Wyszkop
Costume designer: Pauline Jacquard
Editor: Anita Roth
Composer: Bertrand Bonello
Casting director: Marlene Serour, Ife Day
Sales: Playtime

In French, Creole
103 minutes