Unsettling “Zombi Child” revisits the story of Clairvius Narcisse
In pairing the Haitian zombi case with a fictional present day narrative at an all white girls school, Bertrand Bonello invites us to question who to really fear.
In 1962, a Haitian man named Clairvius Narcisse fell ill, died and was buried and mourned by his family. His grave was quickly desecrated and his body stolen; eighteen years later he returned, explaining that he had been drugged and kidnapped to work on a plantation while being fed a steady diet of zombifying drugs. He died a second time in 1994. I knew none of this until a week ago, when I saw Bertrand Bonello’s new film Zombi Child and was so transfixed that I immediately started researching whether it had any truth in it.
But I also know, as we learn in the second, contemporary thread of the film, that what is real is often a question of what you have the capacity to genuinely believe. This advisory is spoken by Katy (Katiana Milfort), a mambo in Paris, as she tries to explain to a lovestruck teenager why voodoo — or an exorcism — will not be a cure to her broken heart. But Fanny (Louise Labeque) has money — a lot of money, enough to casually offer a fee so generous it would pay for a flight back to Haiti for Katy and her orphaned niece Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat). Haiti is always on their minds, but particularly in this moment, as they a missing the annual family ceremony to celebrate the memory of Mélissa’s grandfather, Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou). This exchange comes late in the film, but it is the key that finally locks these two puzzlingly paired storylines into place.
Mélissa and Fanny are classmates and unlikely friends at a fancy residential girls academy where Mélissa is the sole black student. Her puzzled white classmates only know that she is an orphan (her parents killed in the Haitian earthquake), and that her enrollment in the school is due to her mother having been awarded a French honor for her work in opposition to oppression of Haitian citizens by their government. (The irony of the French recognizing this work, given their own history of occupying Haiti is never spoken, but certainly implied.)
Mélissa becomes friends with Fanny out of necessity. No one else seems to talk to her, but Fanny is intrigued by her exotic otherness and her Haitian heritage. Fanny loves scary movies and projects everything she’s seen in popular zombie and voodoo movies onto her ideas of what and who Mélissa may be. Fanny’s other sorority friends find Mélissa disturbing: she listens to weird music, dances strangely and makes odd noises while she sleeps. The film cuts back and forth between this rather blasé narrative and the visually hypnotic, wordless story of Clairvius Narcisse. When the girls pressure Mélissa to share a secret as part of their sorority initiation, she tells them the story; Clairvius is her grandfather. Yet even hearing the story on the most personal terms, these girls can only imagine it in movie-monster terms; in seeking acceptance, she has inadvertently confirmed their most ridiculous fears.
Fanny meanwhile, is possessed by her desire for Pablo (Sayyid El Alami) who has rejected her. She falls into daydreams so vivid she looses track of the present. She writes vivid, melodramatic love letters that go unanswered. To her, this lost love is bigger than life itself and she wants to get rid herself of Pablo’s spirit by consuming it completely, which leads her to track down Katy and demand help. Katy knows that what Fanny is asking violates all the laws of voodoo, but Fanny is not used to being told no, and she has 1500 euros in cash that she’s willing to part with.
This is where the film could easily stumble, and some viewers may find themselves wondering what the Bonello’s intentions are, or what they are supposed to feel. But it is not a spoiler to reveal that after her experience with Katy, Fanny manages to return to school appearing completely unchanged by what has transpired, and that is the most frightening thing of all.