I have seen only very little of  the work of French writer-director Bertrand Bonello, but my sense is that - like so many other French directors - one of his favorite things to do is to provoke the audience more or less for the sake of provocation, upsetting our expectations and tweaking our noses as a first step towards using his movies to challenge our preconceived notions about this or that. As far as that goes, Zombi Child, his eighth feature, has a healthy number of ways that it's provoking and upsetting and tweaking, but the most overt is right there in the title, which provides a double-whammy.

The first of these is about what kind of zombie movie we're looking at - and it is a zombie movie, he's not going to be that big of a dick - which is more of a choice than it might sound like at first. Because, "what kind of zombie movie" is reopening a question that's been settled for a half a century at this point, ever since George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead combined the Persian ghoul and the European vampire into a new type of screen monster that would largely overwrite the idea of the "zombie" within a few years, even though Romero never once used that word in his screenplay. "Zombie movie" now means "movie about cannibalistic undead beings", but for about 35 years or so, "zombie movie" meant "a movie about actual zombies, the ones from Haitian Vodou", and Zombi Child returns us to that long-dormant branch of the subgenre. The other thing is that, in any form, "zombi movie" also tends to mean "horror movie", and Zombi Child decidedly isn't that. It sure teases us about that fact, mind you. The film quotes from horror movies (including very direct references to Carrie and The Exorist) and the gonzo, go-for-broke last 10 or 12 minutes include what's basically a horror scene in form and effect, and a lot of other scenes start to flirt with horror imagery before letting it deflate. But it's certainly not horror.

What it is, instead, is a story about the post-colonial history of Haiti, the former French colony that was home to the world's only successful slave revolution. In part because of Europe turning its back on the newly independent island nation as a result, Haiti has perpetually remained one of the poorest countries on Earth, and Zombi Child certainly assumes you know all of that. It also assumes that you know that Bonello is white, and French, and this is another one of its provocations - it is a film that does not merely anticipate, but welcomes the accusation "this isn't your story to tell". It does not, however, respond to that accusation, but merely lets it sit there, poking like a stone in your shoe. The film is, after all, about a level of beaming patriarchal condescension on the part of the white character who isn't a protagonist but gets treated like one towards the black character who is the protagonist but feels oddly sidelined. It's a strange movie, and a tough one, feeling somewhat disjointed and difficult to parse, and there's nothing accidental about this: Bonello's means of doing politics (and this by all means a politically-engaged film, albeit in a deeply bizarre way) is to showcase that the world is not right by making a film that is not right, and forcing us into a confrontation with all of that simultaneously.

As for what the film is, actually, in a concrete way: well, that's already tough. In 1962, a man named Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou) dies, is buried, and a few days later is back to something like life, toiling in the sugar cane fields (this part is based on a true story). 55 years later, Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), a teenage Haitian immigrant, is attending an insanely elite boarding school open only to the descendants of recipients of the Legion of Honor, as well as a handful of people the school deigns to accept in order to demonstrate how very noble and admirable it is - people like Mélissa. Here, she meets an equally self-impressed group of girls who take her in as a friend, albeit clearly not out of a surfeit of interest in her personality or backstory. Chief among these is Fanny (Louise Labèque), smarting over a bad break-up, which she recounts in the form of over-earnest love letters recited in voice-over.

The film doesn't hurt for a lack of ideas. The biggest one, the one that covers everything else, is that this is about the way that the past remains both impossibly distant and a constant thorn in the side of the present, marked most obviously by the bravura story structure and editing by Anita Roth, which crush 1962 and 2017 together without any sort of obvious scheme in mind for doing so. The dreamy nighttime blues of Clairvius's undead hell of slavery and the fuzzy bright whites of contemporary Paris both feel weirdly like dreams that the other plotline is having: Yves Cape's cinematography is heavy on diffuse light and deep focus, creating an overall sense of blurriness that refuses to coalesce into anything vaguely resembling reality. And as the two visually contrasting plotlines keep trading places, it's harder and harder to tell which is commenting on the other. This contrast isn't resolved, so much as shoved out of the way, by an outstanding final scene that feels like nothing else in the film, and as a result has exactly the kind of waking up sense that a feature-length dream would need.

But I have lost the thread. I was talking about how Zombi Child plays around with different relationships to history and the past; in both time frames, the 1790s loom heavily in the background (in the form of the Haitian Revolution and the rise of Napoléon), and Fanny and Mélissa's storyline is as much about the danger of having too much knowledge of the past without the wisdom to know what to do with it, as anything else. For that's where the conflict ends up erupting, in Fanny's certainty that what she learns of Mélissa's family history will be able to help her romantic woes, and greedily exploiting her nominal friend without any sense of the gravity of what she's doing.

The whole thing is tough as hell, remaining proudly opaque in the way only a French art film can remain. It unquestionably raises more questions - about history, about culture, about identity - than it resolves, given that it resolves absolutely nothing. But that's part of its charm: it wants to force you, its viewer, to confront ideas, and it gives you absolutely no easy way to grapple with those ideas beyond what you enter it with. If the confidently jarring structure, slithery relationship to genre, gorgeous cinematography, or dry sense of humor (including an academic conversation about Rihanna played for for extremely minor laughs) weren't already enough to make Zombi Child a terrifically intriguing movie, its refusal to tell me exactly what to think, an uncommon rarity amongst modern films, even very great ones, would certainly be more than enough to get me on its good side.