Actress Louise Labeque in "Zombi Child": Does voodoo help against heartache?
Photo: Bertrand Bonello / Grandfilm
From the present to the past, from the French metropolis to the former colony: time and again, Bertrand Bonello's film "Zombi Child" interrupts its action in present-day Paris to delve into Haiti in the early 1960s.
It is dark there, a man can only be made out vaguely in the short sequences, who sometimes strays across the country, sometimes visits a cemetery, sometimes observes a family in the city.
A man who seems strangely removed from this world.
It is a true story that the French director tells almost without any dialogue in these nocturnal pictures: that of the Haitian Clairvius Narcisse, born in 1922, who was thought to be dead for almost 20 years before he returned to his wife in 1980 - and then declared, he was dug out of his grave again, put into an artificial trance and forced to work in the fields.
A real zombie wanders around the earth with Bonello, and yet it is not a zombie film in the strict sense.
The figure of the undead, which in the genre film is pure body, a surface without history, becomes a historical medium here.
With their help, Bonello interweaves colonial history and the postcolonial present into an extremely elegant piece of cinema.
The origin of the zombie myth is closely interwoven with slavery and the voodoo religion, which did not develop by chance in today's Haiti, at the height of the plantation economy.
There is no talk of slavery in the lessons at the Legion of Honor's Girls' Boarding School in Paris, where "Zombi Child" mainly plays.
There, the history teacher prefers to give lectures on the French Revolution and its ideal of freedom while the camera slides through the rows of teenagers listening.
A headstrong filmmaker
Four of them, including the charismatic Fanny, whose longing love letters to an absent lover are sometimes read off the screen, have founded a secret literature association, a kind of female "club of dead poets".
At the beginning of the film, they wonder whether Mélissa, the only black woman in the elite school, is worthy of admission to the club.
In one scene, Mélissa recites the Haitian writer René Depestre at a secret nightly meeting.
"Listen, you whites, my zombie voice," she says, and the white girls widen their eyes, confused and fascinated.
After a short consultation, they take Mélissa in.
Bonello, to whom the Arsenal cinema in Berlin is dedicating a comprehensive retrospective this month, is an idiosyncratic, busy filmmaker.
In his early work he addressed prostitution and pornography, in 2014 he created an excessive portrait of the fashion designer with "Saint Laurent", and in "Nocturama" he told of a group of young people who want to set Paris on fire.
Like all of his films, "Zombi Child" is also shaped by Bonello's delight in surprising connections and his will for visual stylization.
Bonello does not reveal his cinema, which always lives in the cinematic moment, even when it comes to the contradictions of the Enlightenment.
His film thinks out loud about complex issues, but never degenerates into a political lesson.
The themes are not imposed on the plot, they pervade it, just as history pervades the present.
The film draws on the legacy of 1791, the year of the Haitian Revolution that resulted from a slave rebellion.
This repressed resistance story comes to the fore when the girls listen to hip hop or Mélissa gives a talk about Rihanna.
In Bonello's film, Haiti becomes a place of longing for the lovesick Fanny who Mélissa's aunt locates.
The alleged voodoo priestess is supposed to free Fanny from her psychological pain.
Using the example of a privileged young person who puts a lot of money on the table for a voodoo ritual, the film tells of the white fascination for black magic and a long history of cultural appropriation.
At Bonello, the big is always reflected in the small.
Icon: The mirror