The dead don’t stalk the living or feast on human innards in “Zombi Child,” Bertrand Bonello’s pleasurably moody and politically barbed riff on Haitian voodoo lore. Instead they are cruelly disinterred from the earth, revived with poisons and psychoactive drugs, and forced into an arduous, not-quite-afterlife of plantation slavery. “What did I do to deserve this?” one of them cries as he hacks away at stalks of sugar cane, and he genuinely doesn’t know. The zombies’ memories, as well as the lives and loved ones they knew, are lost to them forever.
But not necessarily to us. For Bonello, one of the most formally and intellectually venturesome directors working in France today (“Saint Laurent,” “House of Pleasures”), making and watching a film can be an act of remembrance. In this one he tells the story of Clairvius Narcisse (played by Mackenson Bijou), a Haitian man said to have been subjected to real-life zombification in 1962. We see his unnamed tormenter early on extracting pufferfish venom, an ingredient in the solution that, once administered to Clairvius, will induce a deathlike unconsciousness, leading to his live burial and forcible resurrection as a slave.
Whether or not this actually happened — the possibilities have been scientifically supported as well as debunked — is of little consequence to Bonello. He dramatizes the episode with dry matter-of-factness, treating it as a chance to reclaim horror as history (and vice versa), and to show that the two are more aligned than we think. But that isn’t the only dialectic that gives this movie its tricky, beguilingly elusive shape. Suspended in an uneasy nether-realm between historical critique and “Carrie”-esque teen freakout, but with most of the gore and the jolts drained away, “Zombi Child” seeks to interrogate the bitter legacy of French colonialism, from its brutal applications in the past to its spiritual and psychological reverberations in the present.
The story toggles between 1962 Haiti, where Clairvius silently wanders the sugar-cane fields and forests at night, and present-day France, where his strange, sad legacy manifests itself in the lives of two teenage girls. Fanny (Louise Labèque) is quiet yet resolute, with a sad, solemn gaze that says more than her words, and a long-distance boyfriend (Sayyid El Alami) whom we see only in odd, dreamlike visions. She’s drawn to the even more taciturn Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), one of the few black students at their elite boarding school, which was founded by Napoleon for the education of girls whose parents and grandparents have received the Legion of Honor.
As in “Nocturama,” his disturbing 2016 thriller about a gang of millennial terrorists, Bonello maintains an unrelenting focus on the codes and rituals of contemporary youth. He seems genuinely interested in the sports these teenagers play, the music they listen to, the movies they watch (some of them zombie movies) and the walls they erect and hide behind. Mélissa, for her part, gradually opens up to Fanny and the other girls in their circle. They listen with rapt attention as she tells them how she emigrated from Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, which took the lives of her parents, leaving her in the care of her kindly aunt (a strong Katiana Milfort), a voodoo priestess.
There’s even more to Mélissa’s history, as she reveals when she recites a few lines from a René Despestre poem: “Listen, white world; listen to my zombi voice.” Her friends are impressed and intimidated, and maybe a little chastened. But Fanny is both fascinated and emboldened by Mélissa’s voodoo connection, and what she does next goes beyond the limits of polite curiosity, exploiting Mélissa’s identity for reasons as ignorant as they are self-serving.
You can imagine the nasty, splattery end that might await Fanny in a more genre-oriented version of this movie. But Bonello comes off as more sympathetic than accusatory, perhaps because he knows that, as a white French artist, he’s as much of a cultural outsider as Fanny is, even if he is also a shrewder, more sensitive one. And although he’s duly fascinated by the sights and sounds of voodoo ritual, he has little interest in turning it into some kind of “black magic” sideshow, another exploitative horror-flick spectacle.
Bonello is always thought-provoking, though he can also be awfully blunt about his desire to provoke thought. An early scene with a French professor, lecturing his class about the sins of imperialism and the difference between liberty and liberalism, would seem to arrive at the movie’s thematic points rather too directly. But “Zombi Child” never becomes a didactic treatise. The contrasts between its two parallel plot lines are plain enough to see: between darkness and light, between the haunting nocturnal poetry of Clairvius’ journey and the more straightforward progress of Fanny and Mélissa’s story. In other respects, the movie resists easy classification, least of all when we learn the truth about the culprits behind Clairvius’ zombification, complicating what had seemed like a straightforward tale of racial animus.
Even when the picture eludes your narrative grasp, its estimable craft — evident in the shadows of Yves Cape’s photography and the moody ambience of the score, which Bonello composed himself — exerts its own hypnotic pull. The director’s talent, as ever, is predicated on an avoidance of the obvious. The cautionary implications of the story are plain to see (don’t mess with what you don’t understand), but not least among this most peculiar zombie movie’s surprises is the optimistic, even romantic grace note on which it ends. History goes on, and so does life — though as Clairvius Narcisse came to know as well as anyone, not always as you’d expect.
In French and Haitian with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles