Bertrand Bonello talks about how he developed the story of Zombi Child, his process with actors, and how he navigates subjects like colonialism. The film is available on Mubi UK for a limited time.
Bertrand Bonello’s films divide. They often take two simultaneous ideological stances on hot-button issues, operating like an essay, each scene a counterargument to the previous one. In his ruthless depictions of prostitution (House of Tolerance, 2011), terrorism (Nocturama, 2016), and now, colonialism (Zombi Child, 2019), Bonello has opened himself up to a huge amount of criticism, especially when he targets self-congratulatory liberalism.
Bonello’s cinema is preoccupied with clashes of the past and present, the shock of the new jolting awake a complacent conservatism. His film House of Tolerance, about the day-to-day goings-on in a Paris bordello around 1900, ends with an abrasive cut to present-day Paris, as a sex worker solicits a client. It takes such a neutral eye to the awful on-screen events that critics labelled it misogynistic.
With his latest, Zombi Child, which is playing now on Mubi following its London Film Festival screenings, Bonello turns to race. As Haitian teenager Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) adjusts to life in a Parisian boarding school, the legacy of her grandfather Clairvus Narcisse’s past haunts her: he was a zombi in Haiti, drugged by slavers and forced to work on a plantation. The two storylines are presented in parallel, the talky Parisian scenes shot in a classicist French style with middle-distance shots, luxurious pans, and soft colours that suggest Giallo. It feels like the first act of a slasher film, where the biggest incidents are white school friend Fanny’s (Louise Labeque) increasing, exoticised interest in Mélissa. Fanny believes Mélissa has some Voodoo tradition that can help her win back a lost love.
Throughout the film, this begins to link up more directly with a Haitian-set storyline, depicting the story of Clairvus Narcisse, who is a real historical figure. The historical Haitian-set scenes are presented in full genre style with POV shots and grotesque visuals; abstracted colours and discontinuous editing launch the viewer further into the terror of Clairvus’s situation. The cross-cutting lurches between tones, which Bonello ties into one rhythm with his customary self-composed score, a pleasing riff on Carpenter or Vangelis that plunges the viewer into his mood.
I sat down with Bonello before he presented the film at the London Film Festival. We talked about his development of the ideas, his process with actors, and how he navigates subjects like colonialism.
Seventh Row (7R): The French famously have resistance to VOD. How do you feel about direct to Mubi?
Bertrand Bonello: I feel great. Things are really open, and I’m open to new mutations. It’s true that in France, we are very attached to the theatres. It’s historical; everything must play through the cinema, especially in Paris. I’m the president of the French Director’s Guild, and people resist some things, but there’s the expectation of mutation and how we can work for the future with new platforms.
7R: What attracted you to the story?
Bertrand Bonello: A long time ago, I was very interested in Haiti, so I read a lot, and quickly arrived at Voodoo, and from there, zombi. I found the story of Clairvus Narcisse, which is a true story. I was really surprised that we didn’t know anything about that. It stayed in my mind. A year and a half ago, I wanted a smaller film to do in a different way, a different country. I’ve done all my films in France. Then, this nature of the zombi came back to me.
The starting point was this image of a man walking alone in the land of Haiti. Then I had to find a good way to tell that story; it couldn’t only be this story. Because as a French white person it’s difficult to arrive in Haiti and say, ‘I’m going to make a film about voodoo and zombi. I had to find a good point of view that was French. So I created the character of a granddaughter who comes to France; her parents died in an earthquake. That lead me to this group of young girls, and to make another story from there.
7R: Do you worry about the dangers of being on the wrong side of politics when depicting cultural exchange?
Bertrand Bonello: It’s a very political film, even if you go through genre — because the teen movie is as much a genre as horror. It’s all political, and I wanted to take the pop icon of the zombie back to its origin, which many people don’t know. And have an evocaction of slavery and French colonialism. I was aware that by taking two simple stories and putting them together, a lot of doors would open. Of course, finding the perfect point of view to tell that story at every moment is very important because it’s so delicate.
7R: There’s such a mix of tones scene to scene. How did you choose when and where to leap between genres?
Bertrand Bonello: I wanted to play with it. The film is very hybrid: two genres, plus this ethnology. Plus, these things [historical reenactment and the extended lecture scenes] that are more documentary. I wanted to feel free. The subject of the film is transmission of freedom, and I have to feel that myself. I had two stories and decided to really work on contrasts. It’s the Paris today and very silent Haiti against the blah blah of France. By having these two simple single strands, putting them together just makes it more complicated.
7R: So it was almost like an experiment?
Bertrand Bonello: When I say I feel free, it’s in this sense. I could, because I produced the film. It was very important to me to give six minutes to this great French history teacher [Patrick Boucheron, renowned Historian]. It might lose you, but for me, it’s a light on the film. And the guy is very fascinating. And his lesson is great; he tells the film. He talks about how to tell a story in a continuous or discontinuous way. We are making an experiment. It gets the spectator ready for something.
7R: And of course, the girls aren’t aware of what’s going on.
Bertrand Bonello: Yeah, they never understand anything.
7R: All of your films deal with youth and the past coming up against the present. How do you research young people? How did you develop the girls?
Bertrand Bonello: It happens that I have a girl the same age, so I’m used to this kind of music, the music of the words. But there’s no improvisation. The only thing improvised was the history lesson, because its a real teacher! Otherwise, I am very precise.
I do research, always. I try to be open to what’s in front of me, from the youth culture or going to Haiti. When I was casting Clairvius, I met 30 or 40 guys, and when I mentioned the Haitian zombi, they all did it the same way. It’s something they [have] known since [they were] kids, because it belongs to their culture and history. I’m not going to direct them. They know it better than me.
7R: I heard someone describe Zombi Child as the first film influenced by Twin Peaks: The Return, and you can certainly see a similar leaning on dream logic and Francis Bacon-like imagery. Was that on your mind?
Bertrand Bonello: It was not on my mind. But Twin Peaks Season 3 is probably the most amazing thing I have seen in the last 10 years. I didn’t think about it, but it’s there.
7R: The film throws out so many references. Were you purposely playing with those things?
Bertrand Bonello: Not that much, but it’s true that if you’re in a girl’s locker room, you will think of Carrie. We were playing a little, but not much. We didn’t search for it. In those scenes, sometimes, I thought about Suspiria [Argento, 1977]. It just comes.
7R: Why do you keep going back to the youth in your films?
Bertrand Bonello: It’s an age where people are believing something. In Nocturama, the kids are 18-20. They still have the romanticism to believe things are possible. After, it’s too late. I like that. Nocturama was a punk film, and instead of a punk band, they’re doing this. I mean Nocturama was about England, in fact — punk music, of course, Alan Clarke.
7R: Your films have so much discourse in them that it’s easy to see that it can be both romantic and cynical.
Bertrand Bonello: Sometimes, and it’s true for Zombi Child, things don’t appear until after you’ve finished. Because I work a lot with intuition, I don’t want a subject because otherwise the film is crushed by subject. I work with details, and when you’ve done the first edit, you can look at it and say, “Aha, the film is this or this.” A lot more things appear to me after that, such as the contrasts between France and Haiti. I saw a lot of links: for example, the rituals, or there is possession in voodoo but possession in love.
These kinds of things appear, because I return to the idea about transmission of freedom, and what do you do with your history? Your personal history, for example the granddaughter — what does she do with the fact that her grandfather was a zombi? And the Haitian people, what do they do with their strong history as the first free black country? And us, the French people, what do we do with our history? It’s what the teacher says: we invented revolution, the concept of freedom, but what happens after that? How do we deal with that?
7R: I was struck by my assumptions in the Baron Samedi scene, because he’s most familiar to me from the James Bond film Live and Let Die.
Bertrand Bonello: He’s such a famous figure that I used it because, even if you’re unfamiliar with voodoo, you know who he is.
7R: You compose the score and have bold pop choices. In the U.K., your use of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” has a very different meaning, as it’s famously the Liverpool anthem.
Bertrand Bonello: It’s true. Don’t kill me, but in the British championship, I support Liverpool. But I chose the song for the lyrics. It tells the story of my zombi. You walk alone for 12 years, and there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
I even thought as I put it on in the editing room, they will hear this another way in England. I’d love to do a premiere in Liverpool.
7R: What is the process behind your song choices?
Bertrand Bonello: It takes a long time. It’s part of the writing. If I don’t have the perfect song, the scene is not finished [being written]. Even for the credits. For example, when the girls do the contemporary literature sorority, I wanted the pop music to be brand new, because it’s today.
I had no idea what song to choose, so I went on my daughter’s Deezer playlist and chose the last song [by Kalash – “Mwaka Moon ft. Damso”, a venerable banger]. I put it in the film, and all the girls in casting knew the song. Of course, the lyrics are a little too hot, but if I use music, it has to say something. It has to be narrative, not just the pleasure of the music.
7R: And then combining that with your own music?
Bertrand Bonello: It works the same, during the writing of the script. If a scene needs a score, I stop writing, go into my studio, find the colour of the scene, the notes, then come back and write the scene. Usually, when the script is finished, so is the music. It’s important that the music is narrative, not illustrative. It’s a dialogue or descriptive, so it’s important I do it through writing.
7R: So how does that transmit to the on-set rhythm?
Bertrand Bonello: It’s in the back of my head, the atmosphere of the music. But the actors haven’t heard it. I give it to the technicians. I like that I can arrive at the editing room with the image and just start putting it together.
7R: How do you work with the actors?
Bertrand Bonello: It depends on the film. For Saint Laurent, I was very close to the actors, I thought Saint Laurent was me. When you do a film like House of Tolerance with young girls, I have to be quite close but not too close, to find the right distance.
And it’s very different directing someone like Gaspard Ulliel or some girl that’s done nothing. For the last two films with non-professionals, you welcome who they are. But I like both. It’s a very different way [of working when working with non-professionals]: 50% of the character is what I write, and 50% is who they are. I try to welcome that.
7R: How do you talk to different actors differently?
Bertrand Bonello: It depends on the actor. Some need so much talk and psychological stuff, which I hate, but I’ll do it. Some need to work before. I send a lot of music, pictures, a text I like. You try to bring them slowly into the mood of the film. If they arrive on the set in the mood of the film, 80% is done.
7R: That’s also the process of watching your films. What’s next?
Bertrand Bonello: Finishing writing. It’s a melodrama. Mixed with fantastic elements.