Reincarnation of Cool: Bertrand Bonello and "Zombi Child"

The cinema of Bertrand Bonello, whose latest film is "Zombi Child," challenges how coolness and culture are integrated into French society.
Scout Tafoya

Bertrand Bonello's Zombi Child is having its exclusive online premiere on MUBI in the United Kingdom. It is showing from October 18 - November 17, 2019.

Zombi Child

It’s never unusual for someone to end a conversation and begin dancing in the cinema of Bertrand Bonello. His fealty is to rhythm, to fabric, to swagger, to the perfect song, to what’s cool—and there is nothing cooler than the best Bonello films. He has turned insouciance into a bedrock style; his sense of the aesthetically voluptuous is ironclad and whatever point he’s in the mood to make will have to pass through the aura of manicured diffidence. This has made him a polarizing figure in critical circles. Is he charlatan or genius? Why not both? Investing so much of his gifts as a visual storyteller to reveling in what’s fashionable may give the impression of a shallow mind at work, but this presumes style an unimportant characteristic of good cinema, itself a shallow presumption. Bonello’s genius is in turning terrorists into mannequins, sex workers into gods, models to prophets, in gleefully and knowingly playing the surface-obsessed charlatan. His images sing, they drift like cigarette smoke, they mean to seduce the eye. The way someone sits, draped across a sofa, leaning on a lover, hands aloft or gripping a glass, is more important than anything they say.  

Bonello’s newest is Zombi Child, a film too languorous and transfixed to behave like the horror film its component parts dictate it ought to. It’s an answer to his own prompt, found between musings of statues of corpses in his 2008 film De la guerre (On War). Cult leader Asia Argento asks Bonello surrogate Mathieu Amalric why he doesn’t make horror films. “The fear of being ridiculed, probably.” Seeing what he’s done with his true stab at horror, it’s easy to understand why he was worried. He reaches not for scary things in the dark, but bathetic visions of enslavement lit by candles and the rising sun. What scares Bonello, as Zombi Child makes abundantly clear, is lack of control, of being held accountable for the sins of other people. The enormity of colonization, the way its mindset bled through to the colonized and continued in insidious ways even when it was legally abolished. Slavery is indeed more ghastly than any knife-wielding maniac, and Bonello’s been saying so for the last decade of his career.  

He began looking almost ordinary. Something Organic, made in 1998, is about a struggling relationship between two beautiful French people with divergent interests. But for the deep colors of the set design, the man’s job as a zookeeper, and a rather frank sex scene before the end credits, it barely displays the director who would emerge. 2001’s The Pornographer is the proper first step, as French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud plays a retired director of sex films coaxed back on a set when he and his wife fall on hard times. His estranged son is played by Jérémie Renier, meant to represent the new vanguard of French cinema directed by the likes of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes and Christophe Gans as much as Léaud was meant to suggest his first directors: François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. It would be tempting to suggest that Bonello sits at the crossroad of the new and old masters, but in truth he’s more akin to Catherine Breillat, if she traded her penetrating philosophical inquiry for pure intimate spectacle. Bonello once tried to be that sort of filmmaker but wisely gave it up. He was always more surefooted looking outwardly.

The Pornographer introduced the central tension in Bonello’s methodology: to live beautifully or to take action? Renier is a radical, sleeping on the floor of a commune and passing out pamphlets, measuring his commitment against those of his flat-mates. Léaud clearly feels an inadequate model for his son, having spent his best years filming his friends have sex for money and fame. He cuts a figure redolent of Walerian Borowczyk, who did find beauty and newness in smut. The stark compositions (Léaud’s crew begs him to move the camera, such is the new style) really do feel like something out of Borowczyk’s bag of dirty tricks. At the film’s end Léaud will grant an interview and claim that his porno was always political, that what he did was revolutionary, but we know the pose to be hollow. Bonello was shrewd enough to recognize on which side of the fence he sat and sure enough his political leanings have come out only sparingly since, usually bedizened by shimmering artifice, the camera a mirror only fit to check one’s reflection, never their place. Tiresia (2003), based on a Greek myth, follows a trans woman (Clara Choveaux) who is kidnapped and blinded by a maniac (Laurent Lucas) obsessed with beauty. She stops taking her hormones and begrudgingly comes to terms with the cruelty of a world unwilling to accept her, while the culprit finds her and grills her years later. The search for beauty comes at the expense of someone else’s vision, of themselves, and the world.

De la guerre was a dead-end for Bonello, a drearily self-obsessed artistic crisis movie. A director named Bertrand (Amalric) recreating scenes from his favorite movies to shortchange a crisis of confidence. His journey begins when he finds he’s artistically motivated when a coffin accidentally slams shut on him and he’s forced to spend the night in it until the shopkeeper lets him out the next morning. That joke is almost worth the ponderous soul-searching that follows, as he and a gaggle of worshippers run military-style drills for the benefit of guru Argento. It’s a hollow crib of Claire Denis’ Beau travail. Bonello proved himself incapable of plumbing the well of his own emotional life, and all the better he discovered this because his features have been generously obsessed by everyone but himself since. He’d also find a better use for his ardor for Claire Denis in Zombi Child.  


2011 saw him begin his filmmaking anew, as if rebooting an operating system. His hesitancy to fully embrace the sublime and sensuous, his desire to tell us about himself directly, his flirtation with the popular and modern French cinema, all of that died with L’apollonide, translated handily enough into either House of Tolerance or House of Pleasures. This is apt because there’s no in-between in the reception of his work during the previous decade. You tolerate it, as some critics seem to, or it’s the most delicious form of image-making known to man. This film is where Bonello becomes one of the great directors of the 21st century, because of the risks he takes that make him so hard for some minds to embrace. L’apollonide appears to be a diagnostic run on sex work, past and present, but that’s not what Bonello’s doing. He’s showing us the clothes of the sex workers, their tattoos, their languid posture and loving glances, the mannered secret language of these most beautiful people, relegated to objects waiting for boys to come pick them up. It’s the tragedy of inevitable stasis that haunts the film. They begin doomed, their death by disease and the passage of time guaranteed by the opening place setting “the twilight of the 19th century.” Bonello doesn’t want to flatter his heroines by pretending he’s above the act of gazing at their perfect forms. He treats them like some of Raphael’s Seraphim, and allows their inner life to flower by letting them commandeer history, whether by letting them dance mournfully to the Moody Blues, hanging Japanese artwork on the wall, placing them in gorgeously designed Danièle Boutard and Anaïs Romand corsets and stays. His gift is knowing that appearances, from the way you sway to the way you dress, matter enormously on screen. Saint Laurent (2014) is a testament to the work that goes into adorning the lovely faces and bodies on screen. It’s his biopic of the famed designer Yves Saint Laurent (played by a feline Gaspard Ulliel) but come looking for a history lesson and you’re out of luck. It’s more accurate to say it’s a catalogue of his best outfits, the best and worst parties he attended, the people who looked at him and saw a friend and a genius even if he only saw a place to drape clothes. It features Bonello’s finest auto-critque as the Saint Laurent showcase pieces of couture clothing are paraded before the camera on one-half of a split screen. On the other side is revolution and violence. The two inform each other, but they can never be equal.

He showed the danger inherent in the meeting of the twain in Nocturama (2016), named for a Nick Cave album and scored to pop music old (Blondie) and new (Willow Smith). A few older revolutionaries feed their ideas to youths looking for an ideological underpinning for their anger and disaffection. These youths set off a series of explosives and kill a couple of innocent bystanders, then wait out the police response in a big windowless mall in Paris. Surrounded by mannequins (like Yves Saint Laurent before them), they begin to blend into a couture-clad throng, thrashing away their anxiety and living out, momentarily, a fantasy of bourgeoise excess. It’s Bresson’s The Devil, Probably (1977) by way of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), but the clothes, uneasy camaraderie, and needle drops are all Bonello. They’re the spine of Zombi Child, too. If Nocturama is his riff on the zombie-as-societal-casualty à la the Romero Dead films, Zombi Child is more earnest. It’s his version of the zombies of reality and the earliest cinematic incarnations, from the Bela Lugosi-starring White Zombie (1932) to the Val Lewton-produced I Walked with a Zombie (1943), directed by B-movie poet Jacques Tourneur. This zombie recurs throughout cinema, from the charming blaxploitation romp Sugar Hill (1974) through to the bastardization of Wade Davis’ study of the pharmacological zombies of Haiti (Wes Craven turned his non-fiction tome The Serpent and the Rainbow into a morass of jump scares and grinning demons). Russ Meyer, like Bonello, only made one horror film—1973’s Black Snakeˆand the same walking dead men stalk their island paradises. The bug-eyed zombie unthinkingly working the sweltering sugar cane fields is as much a staple of horror storytelling as the vampire or the werewolf.

Zombi Child

Bonello eventually gets around to the smirking voodoo trickster god of Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, but it’s nearly beside the point of this jaw-droppingly splendid coming-of-age tale. His narrative is carved in half; the duality of his moral fixations made flesh. In one half, Haitian resident Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou) is poisoned with the toxin of a puffer fish and his family bury him after his first death. He’ll be resurrected and put to work in the fields in the dead of day-for-night. This portion counts as much as a revisionist biopic as Saint Laurent, as Narcisse was a real man. Bonello chooses him specifically because he wants the tale of men made hollow by labor to carry the weight of the real. Two generations later, the zombi’s grandchild, Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), attends a prestigious and exclusive boarding school in France. She becomes fast friends with lovesick Fanny (Louise Labeque), who wants to induct the new girl in her secret sorority. Mélissa tells everything to her aunt Katy (Katiana Milfort), her link to her Haitian past. The 2010 earthquake claimed the life of Mélissa’s parents and split the place from her concept of home, which she struggles to rebuild at school. Bonello makes the boarding school feel at once imposing and inviting, with its daunting architecture and cavernous ceilings transposed against the beautiful grounds in autumn. Bonello is one of the few true post-punk directors and his blending the funereal interior of the school with the breezy fall atmosphere and the vivacious pop and rap music to which his young girls listen productively builds on the foundations of the work of David Byrne, Pere Ubu, XTC, and Killing Joke. Like those artists, Bonello knowingly fuses modern urban alienation with rhythmic technique borrowed from non-white culture, building a transatlantic language of displacement. Narcisse looks for a way back to his old life after having been killed and betrayed. Mélissa looks for her place in France, the country that demanded Haiti pay 21 billion dollars (in today’s currency) in order to ensure France didn’t come back and reclaim their slaves after the country won its independence. It took them 122 years to pay it off, which is part of why Haiti had no money for infrastructure to do anything when the catastrophic earthquakes struck in the last decade.  

The threads of the film eventually collide, but there’s a dreamy electricity to the early going when they’re apart. Bonello once more tries his hand at his Claire Denis impression in the Haitian section, ruled by the undulations of grief, the luscious greens of crops in the moonlight, and the haunted faces of men who no longer know their own bodies. He shoots this with the harrowing restraint of Denis or Pedro Costa, imparting us with the tragedy of the unstoppable. Narcisse’s journey back to consciousness, back to life, feels indebted to Lewton in its quiet gathering of anger and sadness under the blank face of history’s victim. Narcisse can’t even go home. He’s not the man his wife buried.  

The school is more classically Bonello, the horny and angry girl gang’s antics at the school recalling the militants in De la guerre and Nocturama and the sad erring sisters of L’apollonide in their ecstatic diffidence. They burn internally with the fire of their youthful passions, but on the surface they’re calm, stone-faced. Bonello at the school is a perfect fit of director and milieu. He has tailored the place to his precise specifications, down to the lean-back salute the girls give their headmistress. As in all his work, the threat of violence floats above the tranquil atmosphere. When it arrives, it comes as a surprise, but it shores up his animating purpose. The horror here isn’t the zombis in the field, or the threat they’ll resurface further down bloodlines. It’s that whenever it sees fit, France will return to wreak further havoc on Haiti. It comes in the strangest form, it seems almost innocent, but the young women who seemed so ordinary, so willing to accept Mélissa as one of them, harbor desires that bring out prejudices and a terrifying disregard for her Haitian culture. When push comes to shove, the French “heroes” of Bonello’s cinema will return to their impulse to enslave, to restore the colonizing order, to make someone else feel worse. In Nocturama and Zombi Child both Bonello presents a grim future for France’s children. They have been poisoned by revolutionary dialectics masking violent intent and a comfortable incuriousness about the legacy of French violence. Culture cannot be blown up or reasoned away, it’s embedded deeper than our taste and personalities. Truly reckoning with what it means to be ourselves, historical baggage and all, is just out of reach in his twin tales of lost youth. The reason he takes such care to show the way we comport ourselves in idle moments is because sitting observed by a public of any size, that’s where reflection happens. Bonello knows the way toward reclaiming and reshaping ourselves is to know the space we occupy. How do we sit, what do we wear, how do we dance, how are we intimate, how close are we to one another? It’s a solipsistic way out of Plato’s cave, but this is the way we reach people. Make empathy cool, and wearing the skin of another culture ridiculous, outsized, unsupportable, and people might just follow your lead.

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