Fear of a Black Planet
By Violet Lucca

NYFF 2019:
Zombi Child
Dir. Bertrand Bonello, France, no distributor

Two days after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake hit Haiti, a calamity that would ultimately claim the lives of 230,000 people, David Brooks wrote in the New York Times:

“Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile . . . We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.”

Reading these words nine years later, one could imagine that, in his haste to pen an opinion for the paper of record in 48 hours or less, Brooks relied on a vision of grass-skirted ooga-booga natives jamming pins into voodoo dolls instead of performing any research about the country’s actual problems—such as the United States’ parasitic relationship to the island’s resources and economy, which has continued uninterrupted since 1915. (To cite an example that demonstrates the level of this control: in the 1980s, Haitian pigs were rounded up and slaughtered to offset the threat of African swine fever to U.S. farmers.) But looking over what is written rather than what could be projected, it becomes apparent that Brooks is an adherent of Enlightenment ideals: the idea that there is a “universal” man, who behaves according to rational thought and science (or just European values), and that there are certain people who are simply too attached to their irrational, rudimentary beliefs (i.e. are too ethnic) to participate in project of progress. The governments of the United States and France were shaped by Enlightenment thought, which in turn has affected the particular flavor of racism each country has taken on, particularly under the guise of progressive liberalism. It is the rationale behind the burqa ban in France and the workplace hijab ban in Quebec; it fueled the fear that Irish and Italian immigrants had an allegiance to a foreign power (the Pope) and therefore could not be melted into the American pot, not unlike today’s bad hombres.

The question of who gets to participate in a society because of their values and cultural awareness is the central question of Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, a film that is quite unlike his previous work. Drawing visual inspiration from some of the great hysterical male auteurs of our time—David Lynch and Brian De Palma—Bonello deploys a loose structure to tell the stories of Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou), a Haitian man who was turned into a zombie and forced to work on a sugar plantation, and of Fanny (Louise Labeque), the white, lovesick friend of his granddaughter Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), who attends an all-girls school in Paris.

In the first glimpse of present-day France, a fifty-something, white male teacher tells his class that the idea of history as a consistent march toward progress is false: looking at the world, it’s apparent that the values of the Republic sputter rather than confidently advance, and that they are unevenly distributed. (This teacher, only glimpsed in this scene, is played by Patrick Boucheron, a medievalist professor who co-edited France in the World: A New Global History, an expansive, decentralized history of the country in response to groups of blood and soil nationalists who called for a “Frencher” curriculum after the 2015 terror attacks.) Yet all but two of the girls he’s lecturing are white; this is, after all, a maison d’éducation de la Légion d’honneur, a boarding school founded by Napoleon for the daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters of Legion of Honor recipients. The lack of diversity in the room is a reflection of the award, which has been reserved for exemplary leadership in military service and a certain level of distinction in the field—the type of achievements that are easier to reach if you’re born into a situation where you don’t have to deal with systemic racism, sexism, or economic hardships.

Mélissa is the quiet new girl who fascinates Fanny—aside from the fact that they like the same clothes and music, they also love horror, particularly by Stephen King, himself a former teacher who expressed male discomfort with women’s libin Carrie. (There are several dreamlike scenes of the girls getting dressed in a locker room, yet nobody gets pelted with tampons.) Fanny has no doubt confused Mélissa’s silence for intrigue, because, as many privileged teenage girls do, it’s far more interesting to imagine things that aren’t there than fully focus on the dull rhythms of homework and tests, or the limited social circles of school. Fanny’s predisposition to fantasy is also evident in her daydreams and gushy love letters (emails? iMessages? WhatsApp voice recordings?) to Pablo, a boy who, with his long hair, lean muscles, and totally sick motorcycle, is more an idea of a boyfriend than an actual teenage boy; in one missive, she invents a Sapphic encounter that she rejected for his sake. In the limited, safe way that she can, Fanny is rebelling against the rigid rhythms of her school life, even though she isn’t entirely conscious of it—when talking about Mélissa, she only cites their similar tastes. She advocates for Mélissa to join her “sorority,” a group of three other girls whose questions about and directed at Mélissa, Haiti, and Vodou are more straightforwardly racist.

As part of the initiation ritual, which involves candles and a liquor glugged straight from the bottle, the girls ask Mélissa to tell them something very personal, “something capital” about herself. So she recites a portion of René Depestre’s poem Cap’tain Zombi:

Écoutez monde blanc / Listen up, white world
Mon rugissement de zombie / to my zombie roar
Écoutez mon silence de mer / Listen to my silent sea
O chant désolé de nos morts / O sorry song of our dead
Tu es mon destin mon Afrique / You are my destiny, my Africa
Mon sang versé mon cœur épique / My shed blood, my epic heart

These lines almost seem like a warning to her would-be friends, an admission of an innate wildness of her soul—and perhaps that’s how they understand it. (It’s also effective—Mélissa is immediately accepted into the group.) But these brief lines reveal not only something about Mélissa herself but also her family’s history and her place in it. Depestre was a close friend of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, but became disgusted with his cruel dictatorship, and decided to flee to Cuba; Castro’s alternately ingenious and cruel restructuring of Cuban society led to another period of disillusionment. (The poet eventually renounced the Negritude movement for being “too narrow” in focusing on black people, resettled in France, and continued to work, insisting that he was not exiled; he also wrote a book about a white Frenchwoman being turned into a zombie at her wedding called Hadriana in All My Dreams.) Similarly, Mélissa’s mother (who died in the 2010 earthquake) was awarded her Legion of Honor for fighting against Duvalier’s dictatorship, and her grandfather was zombified, hiding in the countryside for several decades of Duvalier’s rule, a type of absence that mirrors Depestre’s own.

Clairvius’s story is based on an actual account of zombification, one that has been deemed plausible by various scientists but disputed by locals. After being poisoned at the behest of his brother over a land dispute, Clairvius was buried, dug up, and forced to work on a sugar cane plantation at night, with his fellow Haitians reenacting the cruel horrors of colonialism and slavery. Thanks to eating a chicken leg by chance (rather than the hallucinatory gruel he and the other zombies were fed), Clairvius escaped bondage and made his way into the countryside. Whereas the schoolgirls indulge in nighttime hijinks for fun, it is the only time of day Clairvius can safely exist. In these nearly silent, extremely low-lit scenes, Clairvius’s sorrow is palpable but never overstated; he bathes in a river, he visits his own grave, he eats a rat for sustenance. Unlike Depestre’s poem, he never roars.

Later in the film, Mélissa explicates the scenes with her grandfather when a couple of her new pals find her in the middle of a Vodou ritual praising Dambala (the loa complementary to St. Patrick) in their regular hideout, the art room. Though this feels like unnecessary exposition, it expresses that Mélissa is fluent in both cultures: the scenes at the school are more conventional (they show cause and effect relationships, are told “naturalistically,” have dialogue, advance the story) unlike the scenes in Haiti, which can be understood emotionally and visually. However, there is a nighttime scene involving her that shows some slippage between these constructs: Mélissa dreams that she wakes up in the middle of the night and takes a giant bite out of one of her sorority sisters’ face. She awakes with a start, makes her way to the bathroom, locks herself in a stall, and begins growling. The sister bitten in the dream suddenly wakes up and wanders over to the bathroom, where she hears Mélissa’s strange noises. This leads the girl to suspect that she’s not a racial Other, but a horror movie Other—an evil “voodoo” (not Vodou) practitioner.

This casual notion of Haiti as a land of (literal) black magic and zombies is much older than Hollywood. Though slaves in the French colony of Saint-Domingue were required to convert to Catholicism and all African religions were banned, Vodou, a syncretic religion that fused different West-African religious practices together with certain elements of Christianity, became a form of self-expression and release. It was also a way of organizing and forming community in a society that otherwise enforced total bodily control with violence; slaves across the Caribbean had the shortest lives of any enslaved people in the Americas because of the harshness of sugar cane farming and plantation life.

But it wasn’t Brazilian Candomblé or Dominican Vudú or Cuban Vodú—all syncretic religions that similarly incorporated Catholic, indigenous, and West African elements—that would be demonized around the world. Haiti, the world’s first black republic and second independent colony in the Americas, was unable to trade with other countries for the first few years of its existence supposedly because of the stigma of Vodou—even though France was humiliated by the defeat, and plantation owners across the southern United States were terrified that the people they considered their property might rise up and destroy them. This notion of black magic continued well into the 20th and 21st centuries, be it Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (Clairvius Narcisse’s story told through the eyes of a white investigator), or transposed onto the American landscape by George Romero and his endless imitators. However, these endless variations decenter a Haitian perspective (even Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur’s enlightened I Walked with a Zombie) and contain elements that are meant to thrill rather than express some actual phenomenon.

The lack of action in Bonello’s film is partly an attempt at admitting that, as a white Frenchman, he can’t know certain things—and, in the final third of the film, the inability of those without proper knowledge to cross certain boundaries becomes crystal clear. Only a few days before the end of term, Pablo breaks up with Fanny—perhaps the prospect of actually seeing a girl who’s incredibly horny for him is too overwhelming, or maybe he just accepted her messages in exchange for a super blowjob he received in the woods over summer break. Fanny leaves school under the pretense of a family funeral and seeks out Mélissa’s aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort) to “exorcise” her of Pablo and her broken heart. Katy, who works part-time as a tutor and dog-walker, attempts to explain to Fanny that Vodou is “an inner force, a community,” and that she doesn’t need magic, but time for her heart to heal. Fanny objects, threatens suicide, and informs Katy that you can’t rank hurt; most convincingly, she offers Katy over 1,000 euros to perform a ritual to make it all go away. Katy agrees, and the next evening—the same time as a ritual back home honoring Clairvius, her father—she begins what is an ambiguously authentic ritual for Fanny. In perhaps a nod to Fanny’s heritage, Katy calls to Ogou, a loa who is a warrior that presides over fire, politics, and war.

As the mambo chants, Fanny falls into a trance, and sees Pablo in her regular fantasy of him, except that he’s getting hurt, his face distorted. Suddenly, the loa Baron Samedi (Néhémy Pierre-Dahomey), the Vodou equivalent of the devil, appears in the fantasy, and Fanny becomes possessed by him, her eyes turned black. (Fans of American Horror Story Season Three will be familiar with his mannerisms and powers.) The Baron taunts Katy for disrespecting her father, and, to use a Lynchian expression, something really bad happens to the girl and the woman. (What, exactly, we do not know, except that they are both being punished.) In the final shot, Mélissa emerges from an endless darkness wearing a white dress, the color of Dambala; for the rest of the West, it will likely read a symbol of purity. It’s perhaps the only image that could make sense at that point, unsatisfying as it may be. Receiving closure from relationships, stories, or life isn’t universally guaranteed.