Film In Conversation
BERTRAND BONELLO with Steve Erickson
January 24 – January 30, 2020
New York City
Bertrand Bonello’s last film, Nocturama (2016), borrowed imagery and narrative ideas from George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), so it’s not startling that he would go further into genre territory with his latest, Zombi Child. But like Mati Diop’s Atlantics (which premiered alongside it in competition at Cannes last spring), it uses the idea of the zombie to speak about France’s relationship to its former colonies and present-day Black people. Bonello invents a two-part narrative: one thread is set in Haiti in 1962, with Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou) getting poisoned by his brother in order to become a zombie worker on a plantation. The other takes place at a posh boarding school in contemporary France, where five teenage girls (one of whom is Narcisse’s granddaughter) play out an ambivalent friendship. Bonello brings up all kinds of charged thematic material about colonialism, racism, gender, and the nature of freedom, but it can be hard to parse exactly what Zombi Child has to say about these subjects. It creates a very elaborate construct to play out a celebration of liberation in several forms and at different times—but that feels both simplistic and insufficient as a description.
Zombi Child draws on ideas and images from horror films, but it also has space to include a political science lecture by real-life scholar Patrick Boucheron lasting several minutes; its inquiry into desire and freedom plays out like a heterogeneous fever dream—with this year’s best musical number, even.
Steve Erickson (Rail): Do you see Zombi Child as a horror film?
Bertrand Bonello: There are many answers. One is yes, because the subject brings us back to slavery, which is horror. Colonialism is horror, too. In the sense of being a genre movie, not really, even though there’s some of it in the film. It becomes a bit of a horror film in the end. It’s a strange mix, a hybrid film.
Rail: The shoot took place in two installments, the first in France and then in Haiti several months later. What do you think that contributed to the film?
Bonello: A film always has a relationship to how it’s shot. I wanted to do Haiti first so I could go back to France with that experience. It wasn’t possible. There were so many struggles in the country that we couldn’t shoot the way we wanted to do. So I shot the French part, edited it, then the Haitian part. I think it was good to separate the two shoots as though they were two different films and think about them in different ways. It’s good to have time to think about what you really need for the second shoot.
Rail: A running thread through your other films, even though they’re not genre films, is a drift between fantasy and reality.
Bonello: I take this as a compliment.
Rail: Zombi Child is about a man drifting between life and death, and so it takes this aspect further. Was that something you had wanted to do in the past?
Bonello: For example, when I wrote the scenes in Haiti, I thought these scenes are real. Then I thought, “Maybe not, maybe they are images that the young girl makes up in her mind because her mother or aunt told her story. This is how she figures out stuff.” The way we shot in Haiti was deliberately oneiric, with day-for-night cinematography.
Rail: There’s a contrast between the darkness of the Haitian scenes and the sunlight of France.
Bonello: There are many contrasts. The first one is the past and the present. They are two different countries. Haiti is very silent; basically, there is one sentence spoken in that part. In France, there is a lot of the girls talking. That was one of the plans we had. In light, the landscapes are so different. Most of the scenes in Haiti were shot at night and it was impossible to light them because of the lack of electricity. So we decided to do something in between, which gives an atmosphere to the Haitian scenes.
Rail: The weekend that Nocturama was released in the US was the same one as the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where neo-Nazis murdered a woman. It felt as though the film tapped into an anger and sense that politics can’t go on as usual. But how long ago did you write the script?
Bonello: I wrote it a long time ago, in 2011. I was working on House of Tolerance (2011) and wanted to go back to a contemporary film. I wrote the script quite quickly. Just after House of Tolerance, I was pitched Saint Laurent (2014), so I set it away for a while and went back to it in 2015. It was weird that at that time, we had all these attacks in France. For me, Nocturama is much more of a horror film than Zombi Child. It’s more a zombie film.
Rail: You can guess that the terrorists’ politics in Nocturama are anti-capitalist from their targets, but there’s still a vagueness about what they believe. I have the impression that the film was better received by critics in the US than in France.
Bonello: It was, but in France the film was released just after these attacks on Paris. Some people mixed up the reality with what I wanted to say, which are two different things. My film was not about terrorism, it was about lost youth. If I had done the film in the ’70s, it would be only the first part. Today, things are more complicated. The second part, which says they don’t know what they’re doing, is more contemporary.
Rail: The use of music in Nocturama is very striking. How did you choose the songs, which include Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like,” Blondie’s “Call Me” and Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair”?
Bonello: The use of music is like a jukebox. The songs are very precisely chosen for a specific reason. It took a long time to get it right. They were already in the script. There’s a narrative reason why I chose them. “I Don’t Like” is a song Chief Keef wrote in jail, I think. I was really obsessed with it for a while. For me, it was the perfect song for that moment in the film.
Rail: The song by Belgian-Congolese rapper Damso plays a very important role in Zombi Child. The lyrics are very macho, but the girls have no trouble singing along and finding their own emotions in it. Your daughter introduced you to him?
Bonello: In a way. I was searching for songs and just looked at her Deezer playlist. The last song was that one. When I did the casting, I met 100 15-year-old girls, and they all knew this song by heart. The lyrics are hard for girls, but they’re really conscious of what they’re singing.
Rail: In the scenes in France, men hardly appear. The school seems like a place where girls can express their desire. That’s quite a change from the Haiti scenes, where the protagonist is a man. Were you thinking about a history of films set in girls’ schools?
Bonello: I was thinking about the atmosphere of girls’ boarding schools. I wasn’t aware of the specific one I chose before writing. I just looked it up on the Internet. It was created by Napoleon. That was fantastic for the film, because of his history with slavery in Haiti. In a way, it makes a bridge between the two parts.
Rail: Did you suggest to Patrick Boucherot exactly what he should talk about, or was that basically filming a real lecture?
Bonello: I gave him the main subject: two currents of freedom in the 19th century, post-revolution. After, he gave a lesson the way he wanted. It was a fantastic gift. It’s exactly the film, both what he says about freedom and how can we today tell a story about lived experience.
Rail: In the US, the attitude that minorities need to tell their own stories has become very popular. I don’t know how much of an issue it is France.
Bonello: It is. Maybe for many reasons which are quite sad, I was able to tell this story and a Haitian director couldn’t. It’s not a problem if I can find a good point of view. It’s a problem if I pretend that I’m Haitian. That’s why most of the film takes place in France.
Rail: Voodoo has often been used, especially in horror movies, as a scare tactic with no respect. It’s easy to understand the level of suspicion around that.
Bonello: I hope the movie pays respect to voodoo. There is a discussion between the adult and young girl where she states some things clearly. Zombies are the dark side of voodoo, but it’s quite positive, making a bridge between life and death.