Bertrand Bonello on Zombi Child

French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello (House of Tolerance, Nocturama) talks zombie movies, composing his own scores, and the importance of young people in his movies

Feature by Thomas Atkinson | 17 Oct 2019
  • Zombi Child

Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child is pre-occupied with a question: who are we harming when we consume culture we don’t understand? It answers that question with deep sympathy for those affected by it by following the dual stories of Clairvius Narcisse, a 1960s Haitian man resurrected from the grave to work as a slave, and, in the present day, Mélissa, who has roots in Haiti, and Fanny, a white girl. Both are students at a prestigious school for daughters of French Legion of Honour recipients, and Mélissa’s attempts to join Fanny’s white sorority are what lead us to understand the link between these girls and Clairvius.

It’s a fantastic film, coming to Mubi. To mark the occasion, The Skinny caught up with Bonello at the London Film Festival to dig deeper into this strange, incisive work.

The Skinny: Both this and your previous film Nocturama are genre movies, but Zombi Child feels also like a commentary on its genre. Where does your fascination with genre come from, particularly in this instance?

Bertrand Bonello: My first approach of cinema was the genre movie when I was a teenager, you know? My favourite directors when I was 13 or 14 were John Carpenter, [George] Romero and [David] Cronenberg. For me, when I was watching these films at that time, it was just entertainment. And then when I watched them again later, I realised they were good directors, good films and political films. Nocturama and Zombi Child share something in that they use the genre movie to have a political discourse. If you want to express your fear of the world, you can go through the cinema of fear.

Interesting that you mention John Carpenter, because the score, particularly in the sections with Clairvius, feels like you’ve taken the basic elements of a Carpenter score and stripped them down to the bare essentials. What was your process with scoring this film?

I do my own score, and I do it very early during the scriptwriting. I don’t wait to be in the editing. So, when I write a scene and I feel the scene needs some music, I go into my studio and try to search for the sound, the colour, the feel, the first note, something. Then I go back to my desk and finish the scene up. Usually when the script is finished, the music is finished. I had a very simple idea for this one: there’s one colour for the girls [Melissa and Fanny] and one colour for Clairvius. For Clairvius, I wanted this electro sound with a lot of space in it, so you can still have the sounds of the country. Something very minimal. With the sound I used, you can hear a bit of John Carpenter. For the girls, I used choir voices, which can remind you of some films of the ‘70s. Music of Morricone for Argento, and stuff like that.

Haiti feels significant here, especially as it’s the only state in history to be successfully established after a slave revolt – which it did against France. Was that something that was in your mind when you were choosing Haiti as a location?

Fifteen years ago, I was very interested in this country, so I read a lot about it. The history of it is so amazing if you go deep into it. Everyone says it’s the poorest country in the world, and it is, but in a way, it’s one of the richest. It has so many stories and the history is so strong. And, of course, the relationship between France and Haiti is complicated. That’s why, when I found the boarding school in the movie, I learnt it was built by Napoleon. That made its relationship with Haiti very strong.

Like Nocturama, this is about teenagers. Why have teens made such interesting subjects for your films?

For Nocturama, they’re all around 19, 20. It’s the romanticism of revolution, which is something that really belongs to the youth. If you’re 25, 26, it doesn’t work the same way, so I wanted to give the characters some sort of romanticism. I imagine Nocturama like a punk movie, and if you make a punk band, you’re 16, 17, 18. You’re not older. For Zombi Child, I think it was the perfect age to receive this story. I also wanted to go through the teen movie, as a genre movie also, to arrive at the horror film.

I’m curious about the outlying research you did into Haitian voodoo.

Lots by reading. Ethnological books, books about voodoo, you know? It’s very difficult when you go into Haiti and you’re white and you say, “I’m going to do a film about this, this and this.” You have to be accepted. When white people come to Haiti and only wanna talk about zombies and voodoo, they don’t really like that. So I did a lot of research to be as right as I could. In terms of cinema, not that much, because all the zombie movies are very different from mine. It’s all American zombies that are real dead people, or don’t find a place in hell and come back. My zombie is between life and death. The idea was to take this very famous image of the zombie and take it back to its origin, and in this way, talk about slavery. There are a couple of movies with this kind of zombie, like Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie, or White Zombie. But, some documentaries… Maya Deren, who shot Divine Horseman, or Jean Rouch with Les Maîtres Fou. This kind of approach. A lot of photographs…

You mentioned that it’s difficult as a white director to do this film. But it still feels very impassioned and angry. Was it difficult separating the viewpoint of Mélissa and Clairvius with your own experiences?

When I was casting Clairvius, I met 30 or 40 men. I said, “it’s a film about the zombie”, and they all did the zombie the same way, because it’s in their culture. I guess since they were kids, their mother or grandmother tells them zombie stories. So for that kind of thing, I do not direct them because I know that they know much more than me about that.

So, because you’re directing “less”, does it feel like a less personal film for you?

Oh no, it’s another way, but still very personal. You have to welcome things. It’s the same with the young girls, because of course, I wanted them to be very close with their music and their language. I have a daughter of the same age and she helped me to really find the perfect words. There’s no improvisation at all, it’s very, very written. The only bit that’s improvised is the history lesson, which was a great teacher who I just asked to come along. I gave him the subject and he did his lesson. The rest is very precise. But I was helped by my daughter to find the exact words and find the music. It’s like for the zombies. You have to welcome their music, their instincts. 

Zomb Child had its UK premiere at London Film Festival and is available on MUBI until 19 Nov