Bertrand Bonello’s latest feature film, Zombi Child, opens on a shot of dark clouds and a bright moon. We’re in Haiti in 1962. Soon a man collapses on the street and is hurridly buried in a state between dead and alive. On that same night, strangers remove him from his grave, and through voodoo preparations bring him back to half-consciousness. Unable to talk, think or protest he is set to work at a plantation—a zombie slave.
This story, which is based on the real-life events of one Clairvius Narcisse, is only one of two stories that are told in Bonello’s brilliant follow-up to his contemporary masterpiece, Nocturama. The second story is set in modern-day Paris and follows another band of millennial rebels, but whereas the helpless anarchists of Nocturama seemed to exist on the fringe of society, Zombi Child invites us to a prestigious boarding school of young lycéeenes that are constantly reminded of the distinguished baccalaureates of the past.
In the very first scene in the contemporary storyline, Bonello seems eager to engage directly with his previous work, particularly the ideas of revolution and history—in a philosophical and etymological manner—present in Nocturama (and to a lesser, but nonetheless important, extent in House of Pleasure). The scene takes place in a classroom, as an old middle-aged white professor lectures his students, and our protagonists, on the concepts of revolution and history. “France means revolution” he proclaims before he interrogates that very notion. He suggests that since France first became synonymous with “revolution” it has not been able to carry the weight of such a connotation of language. He cites Jules Michelet, whom I am not at all familiar with (sadly), but this sequence can also be read through the lens of Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin, and particularly Benjamin’s On the Concept of History. A lot has been said and argued about when it comes to Benjamin’s controversial essay, but it is difficult to imagine that it hasn’t inspired Bonello in some manner as he wrote Zombi Child.
The film engages directly with questions of historicism, and asks what it is to write history, how we perceive what others have written, and maybe most importantly, how has history been written and who has written it. These questions are interwoven into the fabric of Zombi Child, as we follow this small clique of young white women who carefully invite Mélissa (Wisalanda Luimat) into their “literary sorority.” Mélissa is the grand-daughter of Narcisse, and she came to France with her aunt from Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquakes, which took the lives of her parents. The literary sorority invites Mélissa to join them, but they don’t seem to fully appreciate her as her own person. She’s “weird” and when she shares a poem by Réne Depestre that begins “listen white world to my zombie roar” they accept her into their sorority but they don’t seem to accept her. Bonello, however, wants us to see her. When the sorority leaves Mélissa to discuss whether or not she can join them, the camera stays behind with her, and while one would expect her to be anxiously awaiting her verdict, Mélissa sits back on the table with Mwaka Moon by Damso playing through her phone speakers. She sits almost motionless before she begins to move her arms and body in a graceful rhythm. It’s a quiet moment that doesn’t seem very concerned about the viewer, especially compared to Bonello’s typical extravagances in his earlier work, but it is perhaps one of the most powerful moments in his entire filmography, because this is who Mélissa is.
It is in the same room, very late in the film, that the ideas of Benjamin are fully and completely engaged with as Bonello almost explicitly makes a statement on the notion of how we—in this case, a white French society—engage with history. It is here that he fully allows the Haitian roots of this story to take over, in a handful of extravagant and beautiful moments. It is here that he lets us know that it doesn’t really matter if we don’t believe the story of Narcisse. It doesn’t really matter if we think Mélissa is “weird” and it doesn’t really matter what we think of Haitian history and voodoo culture, because it isn’t for us. It is for Mélissa.