Bertrand Bonello’s last film, Nocturama, followed a group of disaffected Parisian youths as they committed terrorist acts across the city and subsequently holed up in a shopping mall overnight to avoid authorities. It was enigmatic, toying with structure to disorient the audience and offering no context or motivation for their destructive actions, instead challenging the audience’s ability to sympathize without explicit justification. The film was divisive, which is understandable considering the directly confrontational material and approach. Bonello’s new film Zombi Child is similarly ambiguous, utilizing a fragmented structure and exploring the impact of cultural appropriation in a complex and unique way. It’s also one of the strangest and most haunting films I’ve seen since Nocturama.
Zombi Child opens in 1962 with a Haitian man dying and seemingly coming back to life as a revived zombie. He’s forced into slavery, dispassionately working in fields with other zombies, until he seizes an opportunity to escape, heading into the wilderness toward freedom. This section of the film is based on the real-life account of Clairvius Narcisse, whose supposed “rise from the dead” was most likely caused by a combination of hallucinogenic substances related to voodoo rituals. Reading up on this peculiar case on Wikipedia in retrospect helped clear up some confusion, specifically with the film’s denouement, but the film mostly uses this real-life anomaly as thematic and narrative background for the main plot, occasionally cutting back to continue Narcisse’s journey.
The bulk of the film, however, takes place in modern day, following Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), a Haitian teenager arriving at an all-girls boarding school in France. She mostly keeps to herself, until she’s approached by Fanny (Louise Labeque), who finds Mélissa alluring and wants to bring her into Fanny’s small club that secretly meets at night. During Mélissa’s initiation into the group, which hinges on her revealing something private about herself, it becomes clear that Mélissa has a connection to Narcisse. Fanny is fascinated by Mélissa, and her friends, though more apprehensive, decide to accept her into their club. Mélissa starts to open up, teaching them a dance to her favorite song and telling them about her culture. When she mentions that her aunt practices voodoo, Fanny decides to seek out her help, which sets in motion the truly unforgettable third act.
Zombi Child tackles very risky thematic and narrative territory, and Bonello anticipates and adeptly sidesteps the inevitable criticisms of cultural appropriation by having the film serve as a critique of cultural appropriation. Though he avoids painting his characters with broad strokes, or unilaterally distinguishing good vs. evil, he clearly depicts Fanny’s fascination with Mélissa and her culture as an extension of her naitivé and selfishness; she’s only interested in learning about Melissa’s background and culture as a means to alleviate her own trivial problems.
With Nocturama, Bonello eschewed context entirely, resulting in a film that was sharply elliptical and deliberately cryptic. Zombi Child is similarly ambiguous for most of its runtime, and though it doesn’t entirely live up to genre conventions the title would imply, there is a chilling, disquieting tone throughout and some genuinely startling imagery in the heart-pounding climax that stuck with me long after I left the theater. Admittedly, Bonello betrays his own sensibilities briefly in the final stretch, by unloading a massive amount of exposition and mythology as a means to explain the jarring events unfolding onscreen. It’s a perplexing choice considering the audience can gather the stakes and implications of the third act through the film’s tone and context, but also because the information we’re given hardly makes sense of the bizarre developments we’re witnessing. It’s unfortunate Bonello seems to second guess the audience’s appetite for ambiguity and overcorrect to this degree.
Zombi Child is far from a flawless film. The third act is uneven, though completely thrilling, and Bonello doesn’t totally tie together the past and present timelines, either narratively or thematically. But the relatively incoherent narrative is somewhat of a virtue, as it gives this more straightforward outing from Bonello more complexity to contemplate and digest after the credits roll. It may not be as immediately stunning, provocative, or hypnotic as Nocturama, but Zombi Child is just as visually impressive and, in some ways, even more thematically substantial. I’ll eagerly await whatever he does next.