Film

The Horrors of Coming of Age

In his latest film, Zombi Child, Bertrand Bonello complements his usual emphasis on aesthetics with an insightful critique of colonialism and the contradictions of liberalism.

From Zombi Child (2019), dir. Bertrand Bonello, (image courtesy of Film Movement)

Although his films almost always deal with capitalism, Bertrand Bonello has never been “political” as one tends to think of the word. He is first and foremost an aestheticist, interested in the appearances and ideas of beauty as they relate to capitalism rather than the sociological and material conditions of it. Zombi Child maintains all the virtues associated with this approach — namely striking compositions and excellent use of pop music, whether to complicate the emotional state of a character listening to it or to simply channel the precise mix of feelings Bonello desires in the listener  — while adding an insightful critique of colonialism and an exploration of the contradictions that liberalism and history create for liberty and revolution.

Bonello’s response to that contradiction sets not just timelines but also narrative modes against one another. The film opens in Haiti in 1962 with the story of Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou), said to have been turned into a “zombi” and forced to work on a sugar plantation for years before returning to his family for a “second life” after the death of the Bokor (a Haitan Vodou sorcerer). These scenes are elliptical, opaque, and very light on dialogue, contrasting heavily with the present-day narrative in Paris, in which Narcisse’s granddaughter Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) joins a sorority of four white girls at a boarding school for the daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters of Legion of Honor recipients. The girls both condescend to and make genuine attempts to understand Mélissa’s culture, but as mounting horror tropes illuminate the irreconcilability of Enlightenment liberalism and the legacy of French colonialism, they instinctively drift toward skepticism and appropriation. Far from clinical or scholarly, however, Zombi Child is teeming  with vivid hangout scenes and brilliant slices of life, such as when Mélissa recites a René Depestre poem as her tryout for the sorority and then, as the other girls deliberate next-door, dances in solitude to Kalesh’s “Mwaka Moon;” it is these moments that make the revelations visceral rather than didactic.

Zombi Child (2019), dir. Betrand Bonello, will screen on Oct. 1 and Oct. 2 at Film at Lincoln Center (165 W. 65th Street), as part of the 57th New York Film Festival.

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