Bertrand Bonello on Zombi Child

Bertrand Bonello on Zombi Child first published by, from an interview conducted while he was at the BFI London Film Festival 2019. 

Writer/director/producer/composer Bertrand Bonello is best known on these shores for The Pornographer (2001), Tiresia (2003), House of Tolerance (2011) and Nocturama (2016) – films which often deploy a certain icy distance as an alienation effect which stimulates viewers to fill his blank canvases with meaning. His remote characters can often seem like zombies – and for his latest, Zombi Child, he introduces the walking dead, both real and fictive, in twin storylines that follow real-life zombie Clairvius Narcisse (played by Mackenson Bijou) in Sixties Haiti, and his invented granddaughter Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) and her lovesick schoolfriend Fanny (Louise Labeque) in present-day Paris. From somewhere between these two disparate narratives there emerges a dialectic on the unresolved colonial history that still haunts France today.

In the UK, Zombi Child is being released by Mubi. From your perspective as a filmmaker, are streaming platforms something that you wholeheartedly embrace, or a necessary evil?

It’s a complex question. I’m also the President of the Directors’ Guild in France, so we are always fighting for our rights, and stuff like that. We are aware that we have to work with platforms. The thing is, how can we work with them, how can we welcome them, how can we make a discussion? No it’s not an evil, it’s just a mutation that is here and, you know, people watch films differently. Even in France, which is a very huge country of cinephiles, things move, so we have to be with this movement. So, for example, everybody says about Netflix, “Netflix is evil.” It’s not evil – let’s just try to see how we can work with them. But for me it’s not a problem, not at all.

Zombi Child starts in Haiti, 1962, with a mostly wordless account of the zombification of Clairvius Narcisse. Was his true story also your way into the story that you tell? 

Yes, the starting point was really this. It’s something that I discovered about 15 years ago while reading about Haiti – the story of Clairvius, and of Haitian zombies in general. I was not aware of that, I was very surprised. Like a lot of people, for me the zombie was a creation. And when I decided to go back to that [material], the starting point was this. Then I of course cannot make the film only about that. I cannot, as a white French guy, come to Haiti and say, ‘My film is about zombies and voodoo.’ I have to find a point of view and a way to tell the story. That’s why, even though Clairvius is, I think, quite real, I invented the granddaughter who loses her parents and goes to France: to have a French point of view to tell the story, and two thirds of the film in fact takes place on France and only one third in Haiti. And even the Haitian images – when I saw the film for the first time – I said, ‘Maybe they’re real, maybe it’s the Haitians that Mélissa has in her mind from the stories she was told by her mother or grandmother of grandfather.’ So finding the good point of view was a good distancing effect.

That brings me to another question, relating to this notion of distance. The film is regularly punctuated by Fanny’s infatuated love letters to her absent boyfriend, and similarly Mélissa stays in touch with her aunt via phone when she is in the boarding school, and the aunt herself, a mambo, gives news updates from Paris to her deceased relatives back in Haiti. So long-distance relationships are a recurrent motif in the film. Was that your way of instantiating the link between Sixties Haiti and modern-day France?

In the way I wrote the film, I have two very different stories. In France, the sorrow of a young girl, and in Haiti, this story of Clairvius, which is quite simple. And when you put them together, what do the contrasts create? And after there are some contrasts, there are some links. You have the possession in voodoo, but you have the possession of love. You have the rituals in voodoo, and the girls have their rituals . You make links. 

When we first meet schoolgirls Fanny and Mélissa, they are in a lesson on the unconfronted failures of liberation and revolution in French history – and their teacher is played by Patrick Boucheron, a historian whose co-edited book A Global History of France (2017) looks at French history from a decentralised perspective. Without wishing to be reductive, would you say that to a degree that is also the lesson of your film?

Yes it is. In fact it is the only thing that I didn’t write. There’s no improvisation in the film, not even between the young girls, except the history lesson. He is a very famous historian in France, and I wanted him. It’s like an invitation: ‘I give you time, and you talk.’ It was the first thing we shot, on a Monday at eight in the morning. It took, like, half an hour, because he knows the subject – three shots, and that’s it. And I gave him the subject – freedom and liberalism in the nineteenth century. That’s all I gave him. And the way he did the lesson, I could have said, ‘Okay, the film is finished.’ Because everything is in that. It gives a light to the film. It’s not only the historical subject or political subject. When he says – I was really surprised by this – when he says, ‘How can we now tell a story in a continuous way or a discontinuous way?’, it’s exactly what I did. Now we’re going even to experience exactly what Fanny’s going to do. I really like this scene, I think the guy is brilliant. I wanted to have this freedom in the film to take, at the beginning, six minutes. I know it’s tricky for the audience, because maybe some people die of boredom – but I’m the producer of the film, so I do what I want.

You’ve said your film has two storylines, but I wonder if the former French slave colony of Saint-Domingue – which would later become Haiti – is your missing third storyline. Is it the ghost from the past that informs everything else that happens in the film? 

Yeah, I don’t want the film to have too much information. The scenes are quite simple, and when you put these scenes together, some more complex stuff arrives. For example, when the film was released in France, there was a lot of political commentaries that are not really said in the film, that are just underneath, they are purely from the underneath. That’s how I was wanting to do it. I said, Okay, I’m going to take a very popular figure, which is the zombie – even a pop culture figure – taking it back to its origin, which is not so famous, and by this movement, make a huge evocation of slavery and colonialism. That was really on purpose.

In many ways, this is a film about white folly. Lovesick Fanny will eventually reap the consequences of dabbling frivolously in a culture that is not her own, and that she doesn’t really understand. Did you intend her story to dramatise and reflect your own anxieties as you were approaching this material? Obviously you deal with Haitian culture in a much more sensitive way than she does – but was she a figure for the struggle that you, a white director, have as you are doing this?

Yeah, because we had a lot of conversation during the writing with the producer Arte France about the character of Fanny. Is she like a bad girl? You know, she has money. Or is she just naïve? I don’t like when you make a character which is – not a good metaphor here, but – black or white. Things are more complex than that. And it’s quite complex. Of course there is something very naïve [about Fanny]. She feels possessed. She reads about voodoo ritual. It’s about possession. She goes, and she doesn’t realise. It’s not her own culture. The aunt tries to explain to her, and then she’s moved by her sorrow, because she’s so young. I like when things are not so clear. She [the aunt] should have stuck to her first answer: ‘No, it’s not a game.’ But at the same time, she does it, you know. I don’t want to accept that I have to answer too clearly about the characters. I think it’s more complex than that.

Schoolgirls Fanny and Mélissa initially bond in part over their shared taste in horror movies. Do you regard Zombi Child as a horror film, or as a corrective to the genre?

Well, if there is some horror in the film, it’s mostly because it talks about slavery. After I play with the genre movies, whether the teen movie or the horror movie, I use it for doing something else. 

What’s next?

I’m trying to – if I finance it, that’s always our obsession – I’m trying to do a melodramatic film, a big mélo in 1936, that includes some fantastic elements, some horror elements. Again I’m using the genre for something else, but its codes I really love.

© Anton Bitel