LFF 2019 #13: Zombi Child (France 2019)

Fanny (left) and Mélissa wearing their sashes during the school day

This film was in the LFF programme but I watched it at home on MUBI. The streaming service is making three titles from LFF available for streaming. Zombi Child appeared in the festival’s ‘Dare’ section, a decision I find completely baffling. The French auteur Bertrand Bonello is a director whose name I recognise but whose films have had a relatively low profile in UK distribution. I remember the releases of a couple of his earlier films but I didn’t get to see them. I’m not sure if Zombi Child is typical of his work but it is certainly an interesting and intriguing film which I enjoyed. MUBI also has an earlier title from him which I will consider watching.

Clairvius on the mountains in Haiti

The film’s title uses a mixture of English and Haitian French. This is because Bonello wished to go back to the original meaning of ‘zombi’ and to try to avoid the American conception of ‘zombie’. The difference as I understand it is that ‘zombification’ is the process by which a person can be put into a trance-like state, losing any sense of personal will and therefore proving an effective slave worker in the plantation fields. In this instance a man in Haiti in 1962 (the character ‘Clairvius Narcisse‘ is based on a real person whose case was discussed in the 1980s) is zombified using dangerous toxins and buried alive but unconscious. Later he emerges from his grave and joins the workers in the cane fields. What happens to this figure becomes one of the two parallel narratives in the film. The other one deals with a teenage girl from Haiti who is a new arrival at a girls boarding school in Saint-Denis near Paris. Mélissa (Wislanda Louimatis the daughter of a woman who died in the Haitian earthquake of 2010. The school (the real school was used for 12 days of location shooting) was set up by Napoleon Bonaparte and opened in 1812 as a Maison d’éducation de la Légion d’honneur, educating the children of holders of the award. Mélissa’s mother was a recipient of la Légion d’honneur for civil duties in Haiti. Mélissa makes friends with a small group of her fellow students, all studying for the Baccalauréat. The girls have a form of secret society and Mélissa is initiated when she tells the group a ‘personal secret’ about life in Haiti. Mélissa has an aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort), her mother’s sister, who lives in Paris.

Eventually it becomes clear that a second girl is also important. This is Fanny (Louise Labeque). She was the one who invited Mélissa to join the group. She has, or perhaps had, a boyfriend who she sees in her dreams, a beautiful bare-chested, long haired young man called Pablo (Sayyid El Alami). His name suggests a Spanish young man or possibly a Roma. The actor’s name suggests a Maghrebi. Either way it doesn’t matter, he is an ‘exotic other’ as a partner for Fanny. Fanny is an adventurous young woman and her actions will lead to an overwrought conclusion to the narrative.

The key to the narrative enigma – who is Mélissa and what does she represent? – comes, according to critics, when the first cross-cut comes from Haiti in the 1960s to the school ‘today’ (Bonello helpfully provides dates on screen). The girls are in a beautiful spacious classroom listening to a history lecture. The lecturer is actually a well-known French historian, Patrick Boucheron, and his lecture discusses the image of France from the end of the 18th century, associated with ‘Revolution’, the subsequent history of ‘liberalism’ in the 19th century and the way that France would be accused by its colonised peoples. I confess that I didn’t read the subtitles very carefully so this scene didn’t stay with me as perhaps the director intended. What I saw was a very traditional pedagogy, lecturing a group of 15-16 year-old girls, some of whom were attentive, some bored and some like Fanny, obviously distracted. Something similar happened in a later scene in a Literature class – no engagement by the teacher with the students. But still, I did get the connection because I knew that Haiti was the first French colony and the first slave colony anywhere to rebel in the 12 year war which saw Toussaint Louverture deliver the first ‘Black Republic’ in 1804.

Bertrand Bonello (far right) next to Yves Cape on set for a night-time shoot in the school

In the Press Notes, Bonello discusses several aspects of the production, revealing that the budget was €1.5 million which is low for a French production, especially given the several trips for preparing and shooting in Haiti. Shooting was completed in four weeks, three in the school and Paris suburbs and a week in Haiti with no extra lighting and a skeleton crew. I think the results are remarkable and this certainly doesn’t look like a low budget film. I was particularly impressed by the Haitian footage. I don’t know Haiti at all, but the imagery was evocative of other parts of the Caribbean that are more familiar. The Haiti images also provide a link to Claire Denis, whose White Material (2009) was also shot by Yves Cape. I made this connection while watching the film and confirmed it later. There is a fascinating piece on the website of the French cinematographers’ website AFC in which Cape explains how he shot the film using “a RED Monstro with a set of Summilux lenses”. He explains how he coped with the lack of artificial lighting, trying to produce the most detailed 5K or 6K image which could then be cropped and manipulated in post-production. We often have debates on this blog about projection prints of digital film. I’m not sure if what I saw on MUBI was 2K or 4K but it looked very good. The possible supernatural aspects of the film and the overall theme also linked the film to Mati Diop’s Atlantique, also in the festival with review to come.

The washroom scene

One of the intriguing aspects of the film is the mixture of different genre forms. The two parallel narrative might be seen as informed by the specific sub-genre of the girls’ boarding school (Yves Cape comments that this was very much in mind for the scene in the washroom) and the Haitian narrative draws on the history of both colonial melodramas and supernatural/horror stories. Bonello tells us that he did indeed re-watch Jacques Tourneur’s fabulous I Walked With a Zombie, the Val Lewton production from 1943. In his AFC piece, Yves Cape suggests that Bonello also moves between “ethnological documentary, historical recreation and fiction”. I think it is an achievement to meld all these different forms in such a way as to produce a coherent single narrative. The last part of the film is a challenge, when the two separate narratives come together. I’m still not sure exactly what happens and what the resolution actually means. Bonello himself suggests that the whole Haitian narrative might simply be how Mélissa imagines how the memories and stories from her childhood might be put together. But that doesn’t explain what might be in Fanny’s head!

As well as the cinematography and imaginative use of locations, the film stands or falls on the performances of the four leads. The two young women were both found through open casting for five moths and Wislanda Louimat actually came to France from Haiti when she was 7. Katiana Milfort was found in Haiti and so was Mackenson Bijou, who plays Clairvius. All the Haitians had some kind of experience of performance, singing or dancing on stage. The music in the film is also important. I hadn’t heard of Damso, who I understand is a Belgian-Congolese rapper but what truly knocked me back was to have Liverpool’s football anthem, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ by Gerry and the Pacemakers, close the narrative. But then I thought about the song’s original role in Carousel (1954) and it made a certain sort of sense. If you have access to MUBI in the UK, do try and watch Zombi Child. 

Here’s the trailer. Beware it delivers SPOILERS that I’ve been careful not to divulge. You have been warned!

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