Bertrand Bonello looks for a deeper meaning in “Zombi Child”, but although the film has too much on plate, it is still an insightful look into the culture of voodoo from a fresh perspective.
It takes a bit of thinking to recollect the moments when voodoo was cherished in the history of cinema. One of some early mentions included “Live and Let Die”, where James Bond’s challenged by Baron Samedi, a shaman henchman of the film’s main villain. But the man, whose appearance was certainly memorable, was rather a sort of nuance than a proper representation of the Haitian culture.
Elements of voodoo were obviously present in “Pirates of the Caribbean” too, with all the dark magic that dictated the rulers of the seas. And clearly, both these titles extracted a portion of voodoo that was an exotic drop, but none delved into a deeper understanding of the subject and its rich tradition.
“Zombi Child” looks for a more grounded version of voodoo
Its first character is a Haitian man, faltering as he walks down a street on a sunny day. The young man eventually falls, and winds up on a cane field, shirtless and numbed. He’s a victim of a voodoo ritual that turns people into zombis (according to the film’s title pronunciation).
Bonello uses that character to make a jump to present-day Paris. That’s where the film’s main character Melissa is introduced. She’s a young girl of Haitian descent, and also a student of a posh, and quite prestigious school for rich girls. Melissa obviously sticks out, and Bonello hints that by bringing a trio of her frivolous friends. The three organize secret meetings in the middle of the night – a kind of sorority which Melissa soon joins and where she tries to fit in.
In a way, “Zombi Child” is aimed at paying a tribute to the unknown, mysterious culture of voodoo. French director’s clearly fascinated with it, but his passion blossoms, unfortunately, only when the grand conclusion arrives. The final twenty minutes throw the audience in the middle of a bewitching ritual, imbued with gruesome horror and revealing the dark spirits involved in the process. This phantasmagorical ending paints “Zombi Child” much more colourful, but the road leading to it is rather bumpy.
Prior to that beautiful manifesto of voodoo, Bonello crafts a film fine to look at but somehow messy to make sense of.
Melissa serves as a quasi-protagonist, but one that neither gets enough attention nor development to make her truly resonate. Her attempt at fitting in the modern society is just a soft wind, barely felt by the viewers. She shares her screen time with one of her friends – Fanny (Louise Labeque), whose storyline is probably the weakest link “Zombi Child”. And that’s not the only person she cuts the pie with.
“Therein lies the rub” to quote Hamlet. There was so much to tell that nothing’s pierces through the ground to see the sunlight. Instead, there is many underdeveloped themes and character arcs, like Melissa’s ancestor turned into a zombi. Quite some time is spent on portraying him and some other fellow victims of zombification, as they moan and knock around. Bonello surely wants to vividly portray the turmoil that voodoo has brought onto them. But instead of a stretched-out arc, a one powerful scene would certainly do the trick, thus leaving more room for Melissa.
“Zombi Child” isn’t a bad movie, after all.
Setting the messy plot aside, “Zombi Child” still offers plenty to cherish, even long before the riveting finale. Sharp are the details here, with a few gems like Melissa dancing alone among lit candles to a French rap song, as if she’s imitating the voodoo ritual moves that we see later. Such moments prove Bonello’s ability to blow wind into his sails, and skills to steer that ship.
In the end, it’s a journey worth embarking on. It might not be the fastest ship on the sea, and its captain likes to slow down on shallow waters. But as long as films about voodoo go, “Zombi Child” sheds more light on its actual meaning and its existence in the modern world than any blockbuster that already existed.
Zombi Child (2019)
Dir. Bertrand Bonello
Hate Grade: 3.5/10