7th October 2019 8.40pm at BFI Southbank (NFT)
11th October 2019 3.30pm at Prince Charles Cinema
Zombi Child is a beautifully gruelling aesthetic trip. Director Bertrand Bonello shifts between the cerebral and the grotesque in his probing feature, which straddles two interlinked timelines and interrogates their affinity to Haitian folklore. The first follows Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou) in the Haiti of 1962; the second tracks his granddaughter, Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), a student at a prestigious school in France today. It is at once a period piece and a modern-day teen flick, with both worlds marked by questions of folklore, post-colonialism, ancestry, liberty and privilege. However, the story wavers in its attempt to establish the folklore legends, leading to a shaky and exposition-heavy climax.
The movie opens with Clairvius, who was poisoned using a blend of psychoactive substances which placed his body between this life and the next – a voodoo practice that will haunt generations to come. He and those doomed to the same fate are enslaved on a sugar plantation. Their bodies are slow-moving, their mouths unable to speak aside from strained groans – a condition of their zombification. Eventually the present timeline takes over, as the narrative homes in on the prestigious boarding school attended exclusively by the descendants of Légion d’Honneur recipients. A lengthy classroom lecture throws you right back to your days in education and sets the explanatory tone for the end of the film.
Bonello marvellously captures the bubbling-over of teenage frustration. As Mélissa’s new friend Fanny (Louise Labèque) comes to occupy the central narrative, unrequited desires are muddled into the family affair. Louimat and Labeque achieve mature and measured performances which elevate the teen genre to a level of scathing truth.
Dark Haitian clouds are juxtaposed with gorgeous streams of sun flooding the decadent halls of the academy. The lighting and sound design are deeply atmospheric and hugely successful in creating a distinctive and affecting mood. Bonello flaunts his attention to detail with the cascading light, which bridges the divide between life and death and reveals the depths of his characters’ internal lives.
Zombi Child is a stunning, complex and haunting feature let down by its gaps in introducing the audience to its folklore. Nonetheless, it is a sensory delight. Bonello hacks at his audience, forcing them to question their own privilege as they move through two visually distinct but equally enriched worlds.
Zombi Child does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.
Watch the trailer for Zombi Child here: