We talk to French writer-director Bertrand Bonello about his new feature, and whether it’s his story to tell
Smart and provocative with a pop sensibility, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child returns the genre made famous by George A. Romero to its roots as a metaphor for slavery. Originating from Haitian folklore in the early 19th century, the Creole word “zombi” referred to the trancelike state of starved plantation workers kept alive against their will. In effect, Haitian slaves feared that death was not an option – it’s an idea that, in its purest form, speaks to the horrors of colonialism, depicts the depths of human evil, and was swept aside when Hollywood whitewashed the allegory with its “zombie” spelling.
Bonello’s eighth feature llustrates something far more monstrous and spine-chilling than a rerun of The Walking Dead. The French auteur does so by intercutting between two time periods: in one half, the auteur retells the Haitian myth of Clairvius Narcisse, an alleged zombi who came back to life in 1962; in the other storyline, a gaggle of posh Parisian girls in a contemporary boarding school experiment with voodoo instead of completing their homework. When the two narratives smash together, it’s audacious, unnerving, and certainly doesn’t unfold in the manner you’re expecting. This is Bonello, after all.
The legend of Clairvius Narcisse, played here by first-time actor Mackenson Bijou, concerns a Haitian man who was drugged, buried in a coffin, and then brought back to life by human traffickers. As the fable goes, Clairvius then spent several years as a slave on a sugar plantation until he snapped out of his “zombi” coma and reunited with his family. “Clairvius Naricisse was the starting point for the script,” the writer-director tells me. “But then I asked myself: how do I tell this story? As a French white guy, I can’t just go to Haiti and say my film is that.”
Throughout Bonello’s career, boundaries have certainly been tested. Nocturama was accused of glamorising terrorism. House of Tolerance dared to include a woman crying literal sperm. The Pornographer inserted lengthy scenes of unsimulated sex. But Bonello, who I speak to at the Mayfair Hotel during the London Film Festival, is keen to point out that with Zombi Child he aimed to stay in his lane: “It’s not your country. It’s not your culture. You have to think differently to find that distance.”
So for Bonello, his POV belongs to the present-day storyline with the loquacious schoolgirls in Paris. These scenes are brightly lit, often soundtracked by French hip-hop, and look like Bonello’s version of The Craft, Cruel Intentions and season 4 of Gilmore Girls rolled into one. In contrast, Clairvius’s sequences in Haiti, which were shot on location, are less dialogue-driven and the skies evoke a dreamlike quality with its day-for-night colour scheme.
In the contemporary arc, characters discuss the challenges of telling someone else’s story. However, acknowledging a hypocrisy doesn’t automatically excuse a film of its crimes, if one believes it oversteps the mark. “I understand,” Bonello says. “But I think the film welcomes the question of cultural appropriation. I just arrived from the New York Film Festival, and there’s a huge Haitian community in New York. There were lots of Haitian people in the theatre. Of course, I was a little tense, but it went very well. They found the film really accurate in its details and that it had a good distance.”
Although the research was mostly conducted by books, Bonello met several locals, including a voodoo priest, when location scouting in Haiti. Hollywood zombies are typically undead humans, but a zombi is what Bonello calls “between life and death – that’s what really moves me a lot.” He adds, “When I was casting for Clairvius, I met 30 actors. They all did the zombi walk and zombi sound in the same way. It’s in their culture. I said, ‘I’m not going to do it. They know more than me.’” The director maintained this philosophy for the voodoo ceremonies. “It’s like a documentary. We didn’t stop them. We just moved the camera around a little bit.”
“It was 300,000 people. For six months, people were living with the dead. It took six months to take away the bodies. It’s something you remember for your whole life” – Bertrand Bonello
In the modern-day parts of Zombi Child, the two main figures are 15-year-olds Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) and Fanny (Louise Labeque). Mélissa, the only black girl at school, relocated to Paris after her parents died in the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Unlike the soon-to-be-released Monos, which hides its location and time period, Bonello chooses to be as specific as possible. “When you go to Port-au-Prince, you can see it on their faces,” he explains. “It was 300,000 people. For six months, people were living with the dead. It took six months to take away the bodies. It’s something you remember for your whole life. I wanted this to be really present in the film.”
When Mélissa and Fanny discover a mutual love for Stephen King, they become friends and swap secrets. It’s here we learn that Mélissa’s grandfather was Clairvius and that her aunt is a voodoo practitioner. But it is Fanny, a wealthy white teen, who takes an interest in voodoo in the hope it’ll solve her heartbreak. Again, it’s a question of cultural appropriation: the trauma of slavery cannot be compared with adolescent angst. Fanny, for her part, protests, “Can suffering be ranked?”
Instead of mocking Fanny’s cringey breakdown over a boy who won’t text back, though, Bonello transports the viewer into her adolescent mind-set. Scenes will be flooded with half-imagined flashbacks of Fanny remembering her first flirtations with a sexy guy on a motorbike, as if the unrequited emotions are manipulating her brain like a spell. “For me, it was in the editing that I was treating being in love like being possessed,” Bonello recalls. “I didn’t realise it in the writing. I was really touched by what the actress did.”
The hypnotic, supernatural elements are complemented by Bonello’s synthy score which he composed and recorded during the screenwriting stage, long before principal photography. Few directors score their own movies, and certainly not in this order. “You’re writing and you feel you need some music from here to here,” he explains. “So I stop writing and I go to my studio to find the colours, the sounds, a few notes. Then I go back. I like the idea that music is part of the writing. The music is narrative, not illustrative.”
Elsewhere, the schoolgirls adore French trap music and, in the film’s best scene, they recite the entirety of a song by Belgian rapper Damso called “N. J Respect R” over candlelight as if conjuring up a spirit. “Hip-hop, today, is part of modern writing. In fact, I have a daughter who’s the same age, and this was the last song she’d listened to on her Deezer playlist.” So it’s a comment on how music fandom, especially for 15-year-olds, can be like being in a trance? “No. But when I did the casting, I saw 100 girls, and they all knew the song by heart, even though the lyrics are hard and weird.”
Hip-hop is similarly cathartic in Nocturama. In the 2016 anti-thriller, one of the best films of the past decade, seven teens explode bombs around Paris and hide out in a shopping centre to evade the police. The viewer never finds out why these kids committed terrorism, but there’s never a sense that they know either. What electrifies them, instead, is designer outfits and blasting the radio edit of Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like” on the stereo system.
“I wrote Nocturama much before the [2015 Paris attacks]. I shot it before the attacks. I knew it was going to be tough to release the film. And it was.” There’s a moment where Adèle Haenel gazes at the wreckage and remarks, “It had to happen.” Nocturama subsequently never received a UK release. The irony is that Bonello was essentially punished for his timeliness. “When you make a film, sometimes you have to do something that’s not so comfortable,” he says. “Sometimes it’s tough. But for example, now, with Nocturama, three years have passed, and it’s the film I receive the most messages about from young people.”
Is there a connection between Zombi Child and Nocturama? They both seem to be about teens resorting to extreme measures to fix the world by whatever means necessary. In one movie, it’s voodoo; in the other, it’s terrorism. “It’s true,” Bonello says. “In Nocturama, there’s a relativism in the idea of revolution. You can have it at 18, 19 and 20 but you lose it little by little. You have to be that kind of age to do it this way. In Zombi Child, they’re 15 because that’s the age you watch horror movies. The girls have an idea of zombies, but we bring in another idea of a zombi to them.”
“15 years ago, horror movies were really just for fun, and maybe now there’s a cycle and it’s coming back” – Bertrand Bonello
He adds, “When I watched genre movies at the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s, I watched them for fun. When I saw them later, I realised they were very political. For these directors to talk about their fear of the world, they used cinema. It’s something coming back through films like Jordan Peele’s and people like that. 15 years ago, horror movies were really just for fun, and maybe now there’s a cycle and it’s coming back.”
In particular, Bonello is keen to praise Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Bacurau, which he calls “a very political film. I love it. It’s brilliant.” I mention my disappointment with Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, a zombie comedy with little to add to an already stale genre. Bonello agrees, saying, “The thing with Jim is, he’s getting a little lazy.”
During his visit to London, Bonello is taking meetings. He’s previously attempted to make English-language films, but only to access certain actors in America and Britain. “Sometimes I receive scripts from the States, but you never know what this industry really thinks. I don’t trust it.” For his next movie, Bonello teases that it will be “a big melodrama that takes place in ’36. It’ll have some horror and fantastical parts in it.”
I suspect that Zombi Child, like Nocturama, is a film Bonello will be pestered about for years to come. It’s designed to prompt questions, either of yourself, or to the director if he happens to be sat in front of you. And as Bonello has to rush off to his film premiere, I squeeze in one final query: why does “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Gerry & the Pacemakers play over the credits?
“It took me a lot of time to find a good song,” he explains. “It’s not only because I’m a fan of Liverpool – I know it’s the anthem of Liverpool – but it was appropriate lyrics to finish the film. I wanted to finish it with something that gives it light. It’s the story of my zombi. He’s been walking alone for 40 years and then he finds his wife.
“And the shot of the girl that ends the film, she’s lost her parents, she’s lost her aunt, but it’s a way to tell her: ‘It’s OK. Keep walking.’”
Zombi Child is streaming on MUBI from October 18