The dreamy detachment that’s a hallmark of the cinematic style of the French director Bertrand Bonello sometimes invites accusations of glibness, and worse. Bonello’s last film, 2017’s “Nocturama,” about a cadre of attractive teenage terrorists who hole up in an upscale shopping center, was called “repellent” in this paper by A.O. Scott, who also accused the filmmaker of “shallow cynicism.”
If “Nocturama” was a glossy execution of a superficial conceit, “Zombi Child,” the director’s new film, is a scintillating act of discretion — or, if you are disinclined to trust Bonello, of evasion. The connection between ritual and revenge in Haitian custom and race and class hierarchies in contemporary France gets a deliberate teasing out here.
The movie opens in Haiti in 1962. In a dark room, a man chops up a dead blowfish. He pulverizes the parts into powder, which he sprinkles on the insoles of a pair of shoes. Those shoes incapacitate another man wearing them; he dies, is buried and is revived as a zombie, enslaved, to cut cane in a field with other such afflicted people.
Bonello then moves to a girls’ boarding school in present-day France. A professor lectures on the French Revolution and Napoleon’s co-opting of it, which, he argues, also paradoxically fulfilled it. He points out that “liberalism obscures liberty.”
Outside of class, the girls have different concerns. Fanny (Louise Labèque), a pretty girl with a blank face framed by lustrous brown hair, and whose love letters to an unknown person sometimes play on the soundtrack, has befriended Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), another attractive teenager who also seems to be the only person of color at the school. Fanny initiates Mélissa into her clique; at a candlelit ceremony, the other girls ask Mélissa to reveal something personal. She recites a text that begins, “Listen white world; listen to my zombie voice.”
Bonello, never much interested in narrative momentum, keeps the idea of story at a steady distance for the first hour. Then he reveals Fanny’s love object and has Fanny approach Mélissa’s aunt Mambo Katy (Katiana Milfort), who, we discover, is the daughter of the zombie we meet at the opening. The younger woman believes Katy to be a voodoo priestess, and asks her for magic relief from erotic obsession.
“You have to know the culture,” balks Katy. Fanny sniffs, “Does my unhappiness not count because I’m white and wealthy?”
The movie revisits Haiti throughout, time-tripping all the way, as its modern tale puts a genre spin on the theme of cultural appropriation. The movie’s inconclusiveness is the source of its appeal; “Zombi Child” is fueled by insinuation and fascination.
Not rated. In French, Haitian and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes.