(director/writer: Bertrand Bonello; cinematographer: Yves Cape; editor: Anita Roth; music: Bonello; cast: Louise Labèque (Fanny), Wislanda Louimat (Mélissa), Katiana Milfort (Aunt Katy, voodoo mambo), Mackenson Bijou (Clairvius Narcisse), Adilé David (Salomé), Ninon François (Romy), Mathilde Riu (Adèle); Runtime: 103; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Bertrand Bonello, Judith Lou Lévy, Eve Robin; Film Movement; 2019-France-in French & Haitian with English subtitles)

“Dreamlike and contentious political horror film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Provocateur French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello (“Nocturama”/”On War”) is writer-director of this dreamlike and contentious political horror film (telling of the ill-effects of French colonialism on the generations in Haiti). It’s the unusual true story of a real-life zombi (following the Creole spelling). The leisurely paced film uses the zombi format to gives us a history lesson that rehashes the politics of present-day France and its former slave colony, while also blending into the story the island’s thirst for mysticism in the form of voodoo.

In 1962, the native Haitian farmer Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou) was buried soon after he collapsed. But 18 years later he reappeared alive and well to his family. He tells us he suffered from a case of  being drugged by a pufferfish toxin and went into a coma.  At the night of the burial, plantation hands dug him up and he was enslaved by his voodoo practicing brother. He was forced to take hallucinogenic drugs to make him not resist captivity. Clairvius blames his greedy brother for keeping him a zombi, along with a chain-gain of other zombi slaves, as his brother collected his inheritance. But medical experts doubted the veracity of his true story. In 1994 he died for real.

The film faithfully presents his real story, but gets fanciful in its main story presentation at a modern-day Parisian boarding school, taking place decades after Narcisse’s recovery. It tells of the granddaughter of Narcisse, Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), a black Haitian, moving in 2010 to Paris after her parents were killed in an earthquake and attending the state-run Légion d’honneur Boarding School, an all-girls boarding school reserved for the children of those families who received that prestigious national honor.This fictionalized story is narrated by a rebellious white French boarding student, Fanny (Louise Labeque), who befriends Narcisse and has her pledge to join Fanny’s secret sorority with coeds Salome (Adile David), Romy (Ninon Francois) and Adele (Mathilde Riu). The almost plotless film veers back and forth between the modern-day (fiction) and the past when Haiti was under French colonialism (fact). When the spotlight shines on Mackenson Bijou, the drama is mesmerizing and the film could have been great if it followed in that trajectory.

The film reaches its final act and tries to pull together its plot to say something significant about how the past slavery still traumatizes the impoverished country, but the film suffers from its awkward shooting gestures of making it appear like two separate films. Yet its powerful Big Picture story makes us think again about how France has not lived up to the revolutionary ideals the country was founded on and as a result still suffers from racism because of the pain it caused those outsiders under its rule who were made to feel like modern-day zombies (Mélissa is weird and might be a zombi) and not looked upon as real French citizens as much as an outsider.

REVIEWED ON 1/11/2020  GRADE: B  https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/