Zombi Child

The girls have a midnight feast

 

There were zombie movies before George Romero came along and shook the genre up in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead and at first Zombi Child looks like it’s harking back to an older tradition of zombie movie, like 1932’s White Zombie or 1943’s I Walked with a Zombie.

We’re in Haiti in 1962, where an opening shot shows us someone assembling something nasty-looking from various bits of pufferfish innards and other voodoo bits and bobs. The resulting powder is then put into a man’s shoes. The man “dies”, is buried, disinterred and in short order – this all taking about five minutes of screen time – is working on a sugar plantation, an old-school shuffling, grunting zombie.

Is it an allegory of the relative powerlessness of the working man without a union to protect him? Or, more obviously, for slavery? There is barely time for these thoughts to raise themselves before we’re off to Paris, the present-day, at an elite school for girls, where director Bertrand Bonello’s left to right camera pan reveals a lone black face in a class of white ones.

Mélissa is a new arrival, and she listens as attentively as the white girls to a teacher expounding on colonialism and revolution before joining her new classmates, who are unsure about this new arrival from Haiti but think she might be cool enough to join their sorority – girly chats and midnight meetings a speciality.

The action then oscillates between Haiti in 1962 and Paris in the 21st century. Bonello contrasts a hot, humid and dark Haiti echoing to the sound of night creatures with a cool, modern and functional Paris, where the twittering of elite misses fills the air.

In Haiti it turns out that the new zombie isn’t quite as zombified as it seemed, while in Paris the true nature of Mélissa is hinted at – she grunts, she’s “different” – but not quite revealed.

She’s the titular zombie child, I thought. No spoilers, but not really.

 

Fanny and Mélissa at school
Fanny and Mélissa at their elite school

 

The Haiti end of the story is based on a real account written by a man called Clairvius Narcisse (what a great name), who claimed he was a zombie slave between his “death” in 1962 and his eventual escape from a sugar plantation in 1980. In Haiti Bonello is reasonably faithful to the bare bones of Narcisse’s account, while in Paris he continues the exploration of the social habits of women in closed societies which we saw in his 2011’s House of Tolerance (which goes by two other titles: House of Pleasures and L’Appollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close, and is well worth checking out whichever name it’s going by).

If it is an examination of colonialism, slavery and so on, then Bonello is going about it all in a very obtuse way, though as the finishing line comes into view he does at least start to bring the two worlds into closer sync by introducing Mélissa’s aunt (Katiana Milfort, very effective), a “mambo” who is going to perform a voodoo procedure for one of Mélissa’s school chums, the lovelorn Fanny (Louise Labeque).

So, thematically never quite gelling, which is something you can’t say about the acting, which is uniformly great. At the Paris end Wislanda Louimat is the standout, a self-assured presence as Mélissa, while over in Haiti the sense of real life captured is more profound, partly because there are so few words spoken, partly because, I suspect, Bonello is weaving in actual documentary footage at key moments.

Voodoo spirit Baron Samedi turns up as a character in a nicely evoked bit of voodoo ritual towards the end, the first time I think I’ve seen him in a film since Live and Let Die, Roger Moore’s debut as James Bond, and not a helpful mental association. And if you think that’s a slightly leftfield direction to be heading in, Bonello himself is doing it too, ending the film with outro music of Gerry and the Pacemakers singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, the Liverpool FC anthem. Come on you reds!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zombi Child – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

House of Tolerance

Alice Barnole, Céline Sallette and Jasmine Trinca in House of Tolerance

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

11 February

 

 

Cynthia Payne acquitted of running a brothel, 1987

On this day in 1987, 54-year-old Londoner Cynthia Payne was acquitted of being a madam and living off the immoral earnings of others. She’d been arrested before, in 1978, when her suburban sex parties for pensioners had attracted the attention of the newspapers, not least because she accepted Luncheon Vouchers as payment for activities including being spanked by young ladies. On the first occasion she’d been sentenced to 18 months in prison, reduced to six months on appeal, of which she served four. Payne’s notoriety stemmed in large part from her unwillingness to be coy about what she was up to. She claimed she had every right to hold a party in her house, that what people got up to behind closed doors was their own affair, and that she had in any case been too busy making tea and sandwiches to indulge in the sex sessions herself.

This second bust had happened at a party to celebrate completion of a film about her young life (Wish You Were Here, starring Emily Lloyd). Indignant that ordinary people should be prosecuted for harmless private activity, Payne went on to stand as a member of Parliament as a candidate of her own Payne and Pleasure Party. Though standing in the one of the most secure Conservative seats in the country, Kensington, where she lined up alongside candidates such as John Crowley (Anti Yuppie Revolutionary Crowleyist, Vegetarian Visionary), Brian Goodier (Anti Left Wing Fascist) and Screaming Lord Sutch (Official Monster Raving Loony Party). She was not elected.

 

 

 

House of Tolerance (2011, dir: Bertrand Bonello)

Known originally as L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la Maison Close, and in some countries as House of Pleasures, here’s a film set in a bordello at the time of the Belle Époque. And, this being France, the girls are fine of body and of mind. They dress well and inhabit a beautiful house full of lovely things. Their clients are gentlemen who say things such as “I want to tie you up. May I?” This is prostitution as career choice not as act of desperation. And, having set all this up – the dark wood and flock wallpaper, the paintings and clink of champagne glasses – having massaged our expectations in one direction, director Bertrand Bonello does something which the languid pace and stifled yawns of the girls have not prepared us for. He introduces a plot.

How much to give away here is the question: I will just say that one of the girls is treated in a way that we haven’t been expecting, appallingly in fact, and that this sets a timebomb ticking in a film that then more or less goes back to the tick tock of the grandfather clock, the exquisite tedium of living inside a gilded cage, of living apart from society.

House of Tolerance derives its power from this split – all is languid up above while down below in the psychological depths, we suspect that the Girl Who Laughs, as the appallingly treated woman is called, will get her payback. We just don’t know when. Bonello takes the maison close at its own estimation, making it look gorgeous, populating it with beautiful women who are frequently in a state of undress, showing their living arrangements as collegial, boring but amicable – they’re one big happy family in fact, or as much of a family as permanent indebtedness to the madam and the threat of syphilis and opium addiction will allow. And at the end of this strange mix of quasi-documentary and thriller Bonello throws in a brief epilogue set in our age of cars and concrete, which asks us to think again about what we’ve just seen and asks whether it was as bad as what’s replaced it.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Frequent nudity has rarely been less prurient
  • Beautiful sets, beautiful clothes, beautiful women
  • Lush cinematography by Josée Deshaies
  • Anachronistic music – rock, blues – used to great effect

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

House of Pleasures aka House of Tolerance – at Amazon