I would not expect Bertrand Bonello to do anything less than what he does with Zombi Child, his first feature since the polarizing Nocturama—and, on the face of it, a much less ambitious project in terms of physical scope. Unlike the expensive shopping mall that serves as Nocturama’s apex, the production design here is minimal, trading between a French boarding school and the tropical landscape of Haiti as a series of interlocking narratives are told (though chronologically displaced). The Haitian one in the past tells the true story of a man named Clairvius Narcisse, who is poisoned by a bokor at the behest of his greedy brother, taken for dead, buried, and then unearthed to become an amnesiac zombi and plantation slave. In the present, Narcisse’s fictional grandchild, Melissa, begins attending a prestigious academy for girls descended (rather significantly) from Legion of Honour recipients, where she is scouted by a group of peers belonging to a secret sorority devoted to literature. In between the narratives of Clairvius and Melissa lies another that completes the triptych: that of Fanny, one of the sorority girls who broods over her Hispanic boyfriend and whose vapid voiceovers frustrate the film’s sense of progression as she obsesses over her man like an eighteenth-century epistolary heroine. And then, when he lets her down, she finds a more terrible way to overtake the film’s momentum.
Bonello’s use of Fanny is what brings a decisive shift to this work, allowing it to stand alongside Nocturama’s audaciousness. Zombi Child’s audacity, however, is not so much provocation as it is violent rupture, but a rupture so damaging that Bonello cannot continue the film after it occurs. The natural reaction when it ends is to shrug one’s shoulders and ask, “That’s all?” because he forgoes any and all sense of closure. I had to wrestle with this fact for a while, wondering whether the film was indeed incomplete, until I decided that it wasn’t. For it really has nothing to do with completeness and everything to do with the irrecoverable nature of cultural trauma. The invasion of one’s political sovereignty infects everything that follows it, and the emergence of the postcolonial cannot be reversed. Rather, it intensifies and proliferates. Even here, several decades after the zombi Clairvius regains his memory and finds his way back home, France’s talon-like grip on Haiti’s destiny remains in the way Melissa and Fanny’s worlds intersect and implode. The backdrop of the boarding school, which so potently signifies the brittle nationalism of France’s military elite, crucially cannot shield Melissa from more tragedy. Though she testifies under its auspices, relating to her friends her familial saga, that saga continues to be rent asunder by the selfish white girl who believes she can usurp the advantages of an unfamiliar religion without bothering about the consequences. The various signifiers that Bonello uses to situate France as predatory conqueror—all of which are disguised in banal ways—makes the finale all the more startling, for you come to realize (too late) that this is an intense act of self-flagellation. It is a Frenchman conceding that his nation has wrought unmitigated evils in another part of the world, and that those evils remain embedded in his own identity to this day—embedded, and bound to be repeated through the cycles of time.
No wonder, then, that the name of the chief instigator of all the film’s horrors recalls the heroine of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, a novel that is indirectly about a family profiting off the wealth from an Antiguan plantation. The postcolonial import of the book is only glanced at through brief asides, though some scholars have argued that Austen positions Fanny Price as a kind of pseudo-slave (due to being an “othered” and unappreciated ward) in order to trace a connection between transcontinental slavery and the patriarchal sublimation of female liberty. Here, Bonello makes no such distinction. If his Fanny is a slave to anything, it is to her vanity and self-approbation; Austen’s benevolent linkage of her heroine’s femininity to the slave trade is dismantled utterly. Bonello’s Fanny is the new colonizer, and to dramatize this, he must implicate himself, too. He must film segments of a culture he is not only a stranger to, but one which his ancestors plagued centuries before. Bonello’s artistic position here is infernally complicated, and there is every reason to be dubious about his objective. I still do not know how to parse his involvement—whether it is self-critique or a selfish capitalization on colonial narratives that are not his to tell. That being said, Zombi Child fascinates because it is at once textually rich and ambivalent, and one, moreover, that amputates itself to contain its violence. Few films end at their most critical junctions, before any answers can be attained; the ones that do have a way to make their abrupt departures mean something, and if Zombi Child is not lacking in anything, it’s meaning.
Zombi Child had its North American premiere at TIFF in the Masters programme on September 11, 2019.