Between Day and Night: Bertrand Bonello Discusses "Zombi Child"

The French director talks about his radical film juxtaposing Haitian zombis and an elite, all-girl French boarding school.
Daniel Kasman

Zombi Child

Premiering at the Directors' Fortnight, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child is a film that jolts our expectations. A bit of a zombi film, a bit of an all-girls boarding school reverie, the film radically combines both through audacious cross-cutting and maintaining a silkily mysterious atmosphere of uncertain direction.

Opening in 1962 Haiti, Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou) is cursed and partially killed through voodoo, buried not-quite-dead, and resurrected to toil as a mindless zombi in a sugar plantation. (“Zombi” without an “e” indicates the voodoo belief of those who exist between life and death, unlike the horror fiction conceit of the living dead.) Regaining some sense of his life, Clairvius's shrouded vision catching flashes of color and images of his wife, and he escapes the plantation through the countryside. The story behind this saga is revealed much later, and in the meantime Bonello basks in sepulchral day-for-night shadows and the sorrow of human exploitation that extends beyond the grave. Cut into this is a story set in today’s France, with a white teen beauty, Fanny (Louise Labèque), as its heroine who attends classes at the elite Légion d'honneur boarding school populated by the children of the country’s most lauded citizens. Taught about the failed legacy of the French Revolution in class, she yearns privately for the school break which will put her back in the arms of her boyfriend. The thread between this very privileged and isolated present and the Haitian past is connected by Fanny’s friend at school, Melissa (Wislanda Louimat), a solitary Haitian orphan whose parents died in the 2010 earthquake. Fanny invites Melissa to join her dorky, previously all-white secret literary sorority, and as we learn more about this regal, melancholy black girl the more the uncanniness of the Haitian story start to seep into the present. “We all look like corpses anyway,” one girl dryly notes. Fanny seeks to soothe her boy troubles by a visit to Melissa’s aunt (Katiana Milfort), a mambo or female voodoo priestess, and by the time Melissa starts making strange growling noises in the dormitory toilet at night the film has effectively cross-pollinated France’s colonial past with its not-so-distant present. 

Like Mrs. Hyde, Serge Bozon’s recent riff on Robert Louis Stevenson, Bertrand Bonello is cleverly appropriating the visuals, atmosphere, and ideas of pulpy genre cinema but applying them towards more conceptual ends. That is to say, Zombi Child is not a horror film—unless one perhaps rightfully sees the faint consciousness of colonial legacies in new generations horrific, at least intellectually. The film takes a bold and mostly earned gambit in so juxtaposing past and present, Haiti and boarding school, black and white, man and woman, and the struggle to return to life with the struggle of first love. Obviously the risk is to cheapen the legacy, to use the Haitian story—which is based on a real person—and the film’s awe of voodoo belief and practice as window dressing for an exercise in style. But this a line Bonello has always flirted with, not the least in his last films about terrorism, Yves Saint Laurent, and a turn-of-the-century brothel. The director chooses vivid, iconographic subjects to anchor not just his formidable aesthetic prowess—Zombi Child is a sleekly beautiful film with a great score by the director, and its lambent mystery and unpredictability is impressively sustained—but to allow his stories to go beyond drama and stretch his ideas and sensations to the level of grandeur. The film daringly asks what could this young white French woman of today, with her passionate adolescent love, have to do with Haiti, with the island’s traditions, and with its history of exploitation and misery, and with its ultimate independence. In a bravura finale, shifting cuts between all parts and thereby inextricably syncing them across times, countries, desires, and histories, the film convincingly suggests that people can change and things can get better. 

NOTEBOOK: This film tells two stories at once: two different countries, two different times, two different genders, two different ethnicities. Why juxtapose the two rather than focus on one?

BERTRAND BONELLO: The basis of the film was the Haitian story, the zombi. I think it was impossible for me just to do this, because I’m white, because I’m French, because arriving in Haiti and saying: I’m going to do a film about voodoo and zombi would have been too dangerous, too tricky. Zombis and voodoos for Haitians, it's very tricky, they don’t want people to use it too much. I had to find the right point of view to tell the story, so for me it was this point of view had to be French, because I’m French. So I invented into this real story the character of Clairvius Narcisse's granddaughter, her parents die in an earthquake and she comes to France. Now I have my point of view and my place to tell the story from there. I really liked the idea that it was teenagers that receive the story, because it’s like storytelling, and that’s why I decided to do this kind of storytelling in two parts. I think it would be impossible for me just to go to Haiti and say: I’m going to shoot a story with zombis

NOTEBOOK: And is this, in a way, also why in the Haitian part, the idiom is more mythic, more genre-like, whereas the French section is more… it’s not a drama, but it has more conventional storytelling? 

BONELLO: Yeah, yeah. In fact the two stories are very simple. In one you have the sorrow of a teenager, a love sorrow. And in the other one you have a man that dies, and that is working as a slave and then works for 15 years. And when you put them together, it makes different levels of reading, of understanding of things more complex. But those two stories are very simple, and they go through many kinds of cinema… there is, in a way, the teen movie, a little bit of the fantasy and horror film, some ethnologic parts of it, even a kind-of documentary with the history teacher—it’s very hybrid. I really enjoyed, and I think I needed, this kind of freedom.

NOTEBOOK: You speak of the ethnographic side of it, and I know that this zombi character is a real person. Can you talk a little bit about the research you did into that side of the film’s story? 

BONELLO: Clairvius Narcisse, in fact, when he came back in 1980 in Haiti, the North Americans were very interested. Mostly because they wanted to know how to make this powder. So they sent some people to Haiti, and there’s a Canadian, I think Wade Davis, who wrote a book called The Serpent and the Rainbow—Wes Craven did a film about that—but it was mainly about the powder [used to turn a man into a zombi]. So Clairvius, in a way, became a bit famous. And so for my research it was quite easy to find some books and articles and stuff like that, even to know exactly how to make the powder!

NOTEBOOK: So the opening scene where the man makes the powder is—

BONELLO: —it’s a good recipe! [laughs]

NOTEBOOK: Was it always female protagonists you wanted to be the focus in the teenage story? 

BONELLO: I had this image of a female boarding school. I liked the idea that there were no parents and stuff like that, that’s why I wanted a boarding school. Yes, this kind of very classical teen movie, girls stuff… that’s more American than French, in a way. But I like that. It gives a pop color to the film. 

NOTEBOOK: Very American, yes. But then the idea of an elite boarding school of children of national heroes is…

BONELLO: Oh, this is very French [laughs]. But sororities are very American.

NOTEBOOK: This sort of national legacy of the heroes and glorified French, this is not an accidental setting: it’s not just a boarding school, it’s a specific boarding school and a specific kind of new generation.

BONELLO: I didn’t know about this school before writing, but I was very surprised. It’s crazy! That you say to yourself that it’s today, it’s in Paris, in Saint-Denis which is like an odd suburb, and it’s today—it’s crazy! And I didn’t invent anything, everything is true. The uniforms… 

NOTEBOOK: That unique curtsy? That was amazing.

BONELLO: It’s crazy! When I saw that for the first time I said: "wow!"

NOTEBOOK: I have to admit, once I found the rhythm of the film, I found the juxtaposition quite shocking, because on the one hand, with the zombi segment you’re talking about slavery and colonial legacy, and on the other hand we’re talking about a young white girl’s heartthrob problems. In a way I thought this was, at first, an insult, but as you weave it together, it deepens and complicates. I’m wondering how much the modern segment is about a youth that feels disconnected or is unaware of French history and colonial history and the connection to places like Haiti and Vietnam? 

BONELLO: Yeah, but it’s not only the French youth. I think it’s France. And there is a lot in the film, as you say, about legacy. What do we do with our past, with our history? From the Haitian side, they know what to do because they have a very strong history, they are very, very proud to be the first free Black nation. I didn’t realize how much they were proud of that. And on our side, as says the history teacher: OK, France is the revolution, it’s freedom, but what did we do with that? Did we do well with that? So it’s about how to deal with our history.  

NOTEBOOK: Do you see the path this young girl takes as a path towards not just rectification of romantic longing but consciousness as well, as increased consciousness of others beyond herself, beyond her love?

BONELLO: That’s why I like the age of the characters, it’s very… they’re not bad girls, they’re just ignorant, and very naive and very into their little stuff. Of course at first I was a little scared to compare slavery and a boyfriend that leaves you, but it was the risk, and I hope we understand both stuff. At one moment the girl says, "is my pain not good because I’m white and healthy?" And she’s right to question that. It’s OK that her pain is very painful. But she has to be aware of other things.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of her love, I was very struck by these fantasy sequences of her's. It’s rare in a film that when you see a fantasy you’re seeing the fantasy as actually the character of that age would see the fantasy. I felt like I was seeing what a teenage girl would see. Can you talk about these moments of teen reverie?

BONELLO: I really tried to put the camera at the height of the characters, not to be above and not to be more clever. Even, for example, with the language. I took a lot of time to find the music of their language. I have a daughter who is 15, so I have her in front of my eyes every day. I can see this kind of… they’re very sure of themselves and at the same time they’re babies. It’s very specific. So for the dream, it took me a lot of time to find exactly how I would put the boy in the forest, to find the [motorcycle]. It’s ridiculous, but I liked it! 

NOTEBOOK: It's corny but it's also sublime, in a way. I understand you’re obviously shooting on location at this school. Is the professor we see giving a lecture a real teacher there? 

BONELLO: No, he’s not. He’s Patrick Boucheron, a very famous French historian, and he’s a teacher at the Collège de France, which is the highest-level. I was very lucky that he said "yes."

NOTEBOOK: Did you write the long lecture he gives about the legacy of French history that opens the boarding school story?

BONELLO: I gave him the subject, and he made his lesson. It’s the only thing I didn’t write.

NOTEBOOK: What was the subject that you gave him?

BONELLO: The two ways of thinking after the French Revolution in the 19th century. It’s the only thing I told him. 

NOTEBOOK: Because it fits so amazingly well with the themes of the film…

BONELLO: It’s the first thing we shot, we started at 8am, at 8:30 we were finished. I was amazed, and so happy. I said to him: "you’re giving light to the film, it’s incredible!"

NOTEBOOK: I know this film started as a zombi project. In your script, were you quite clear where you wanted to alternate from past to present or did that come in post-production, finding the rhythm?

BONELLO: No, the film you saw is very, very close to the script. Very close.

NOTEBOOK: So this increased density of the montage, the cross-cutting, at the end is always what the film is building towards: Like a Griffith film, it starts slow and gets faster until it becomes one.

BONELLO: It’s exactly like that in the script, in fact. We didn’t change anything.

NOTEBOOK: Was it difficult to do a shoot in France and then a shoot in Haiti and know that these parts needed to align?

BONELLO: It’s not difficult, you just never know if it’s going to work. The ending is four different scenes, all of them are quite simple: one ceremony in Haiti, the girl telling the story, the possessions scene, and the boy in the woods. Everything when you shoot them, you say, that’s OK, that’s OK. But what’s going to happen when you put them together? I like this kind of… not "risk," but the fact that you don’t know if it’s going to work. I like that.

NOTEBOOK: The film also looks quite beautiful.

BONELLO: Ah, thank you. Because it’s shot very quickly, with no light…

NOTEBOOK: No light?

BONELLO: Very, very little light.

NOTEBOOK: To me it looks incredible, both sections, the day-for-night and then the schoolroom. So how did you work with your cinematographer, Yves Cape?

BONELLO: I told him, listen, I want to do this film in four weeks, and I’m going to pay you well, but you don’t take a lot of assistants and you don’t take a lot of lights. He’s very, very good with natural light. And then we decided day-for-night, but I told him that we don’t cheat, we don’t try to make day-for-night as if it was night. Let’s do something which is a little oneiric. And we found these kind of colors for Haiti, and we shot at noon without any light.

NOTEBOOK: I loved the day-for-night section because I feel like with most day-for-night scenes in a movie it is supposed to stand in for night. But I feel like you introduced this ambiguity that this is could be what the world feels like for the zombis.

BONELLO: Day-for-night, for me, is like between life and death, between day and night.

NOTEBOOK: No light, no assistants, four weeks: Is this an unusually small production for you? The two country setting makes it feel big.

BONELLO: But I think it’s the way the story is told. If you look at each thing, it’s very, very simple. It’s after the editing and the writing maybe that… but not the shooting, in fact.

NOTEBOOK: Is this approach a refreshing challenge for you after Nocturama and Saint Lauren?

BONELLO: Yeah. The speed, the small budget, the freedom. I was the producer of the film, so… yeah, it was difficult because there was a lot of pressure producing and directing, but the feeling of freedom was so, so amazing.

NOTEBOOK: Freedom, in what way? The script seems pretty firm: you need this here and you need this here and it needs to be like this… 

BONELLO: Yeah, when I say "freedom" I mean, for example: OK, I want to let this teacher speak for five minutes. Do it. It’s this kind of freedom. It’s very… if I had a producer, if I had a film that cost like 4 million, everybody would be like: 45 seconds is alright.

NOTEBOOK: Is this a methodology you’re going to do in the future? Do you think you’re going to produce your next film?

BONELLO: I was always co-producer of the others, but… It’s too tough to be the only producer. I had some co-producers but with other responsibilities on their shoulders. But you know Francis Coppola says, "when you’re both director and producer, there is only one of them that wins. In my case, it was the director, and I was ruined" [laughs]. 

NOTEBOOK: You write the score to your films, including this one. Did you find inspiration in the music of genre films?

BONELLO: It’s not a homage but it reminds me of some genre 70s films. Dario Argento, or stuff like that. Ennio Moriccone. So I had one theme for the girls and one theme for Haiti. This was recorded during the writing, in fact. So it was all finished before the shoot.

NOTEBOOK: You mentioned your daughter is 15, and this film is partially about 15-year-olds. What does she think of this movie?

BONELLO: She saw it last night. I think she liked it, but she had helped me with a few things. She helped me on the casting, she helped me on the dialogue. For example, I wrote the dialogue and then she reread them and said: no, this is stupid. No, you can’t say that. No, this is a year ago. So she helped me on stuff like that, and she was very interested in the process of the movie.

NOTEBOOK: One of the things that I really found interesting about this dialectic between the past and the present is how the Haitian character of Melissa at the school comes over to France and, in a way, her presence changes things. Without her, these girls would live their lives and everything would be as it is. But she comes with a history, and through friendship, transforms the movie.

BONELLO: She’s the link between past and present, and between Haiti and France. She’s the link, but she doesn’t know what to do with that, even for her. She has spent half of her life in Haiti, half in France, she’s the granddaughter of a zombi and she doesn’t know what it means really. She knows what her mother told her, or her aunt or grandmother. But what do you do with all of this? It’s tricky for a young girl.

NOTEBOOK: I wasn’t sure what to make of this time gap in the zombi story between 1962 and 1980, this great emptiness in the film. I know that’s true to the story of this historical character but why did you want to be true to this mystery, this empty time?

BONELLO: I liked the idea that he’s been a zombie for a couple of years, then he escapes, and is walking alone for like 15 years. That’s why I chose this song at the end, "We Never Walk Alone." The guy is alive but is not allowed to be in the world anymore. So, in a way he’s still between life and death. He’s a walking man.

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