Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Bonello’s Zombi Child

Thanks to France’s lingering colonialist mindset, it considers everything in the Francophone world essentially French. Apparently, that includes Haitian voodoo—and why not? They are the ones who created the circumstances it developed out of. An entitled French school girl will be tempted to dabble in the mysterious arts, which inevitably leads to dire consequences in Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, which opens this Friday in New York.

Melissa was orphaned by the Haitian earthquake, but she still has her loving Aunt Katy, a tutor and voodoo-practicing “Mambo” in France. Since her late mother was a recipient of the Legion of Honor, the French government will cover her room and board at an exclusive boarding school, founded by Napoleon himself for the daughters of recipients of France’s highest honors. She is a little out of place, but she still falls in with a group of four other friends, who are basically shallow, self-absorbed teenagers—except pasty-white Fanny, who is especially shallow and self-absorbed.

Fanny is the sort of crush-blinded schoolgirl who sends long, dramatic letters to her long-distance lover Pablo. The kind that are guaranteed to spook a player like him into dumping her. She is the first to ask cultural insensitive questions of Melissa, but then she will turn around and attempt a massive act of cultural appropriation, for her own self-interest.

Fifty-five years prior, Melissa’s grandfather Clairvius Narcisse meets an untimely death via voodoo, but that is not the end of his story. The unfortunate man is partially revived to serve as a “zombi” slave laborer (they leave the last “e” off for cultural sensitivity).

Eventually, both narrative strands crescendo in parallel, with Fanny pestering Aunt Katy to cast a spell on Pablo, just when she should be preparing for a special ceremony in honor of her father, Narcisse. Frankly, the pieces do not exactly fit together perfectly, but the big picture is compelling. It isn’t horror or “elevated horror,” but it still steadily builds in intensity and foreboding.

Wislanda Louimat and Katiana Milfort are terrific as Melissa and Katy. Both have the kind of screen presence to withstand Bonello’s long-held close-ups. In contrast, Louise Labeque just comes across as merely icy and superficial as Fanny, conveying no sense of any depth to her character. Ironically, Mackenson Bijou brings out more subtle dimensions in his portrayal of a zombi.

Zombi is drastically different from Bonello’s prior films, lacking the flash of his Saint Laurent bio-pic and the dazzle of his surreal domestic terrorism thriller, Nocturama. In a complete change of gears, Bonello slows down the pace, focusing like a laser on his characters’ inner turmoil. Although initially baffling, the toggling between time periods eventually pays off dramatically. Again, it isn’t horror, but is still definitely holds genre movie appeal. Recommended for patrons of French cinema and anyone fascinated by voodoo (in either PC or un-PC ways), Zombi Chid opens this Friday (1/24) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.