‘Zombi Child’ auteur Bertrand Bonello on colonialism, French trap music, and a ‘cinema of fear’

January 23, 2020, 6:30 PM UTC
Zombi Child
From left, Fanny (Louise Labeque) and Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) in Bertrand Bonello's "Zombi Child." "I had to find a point-of-view that was mine, which is to say one that was French and contemporary," says Bonello of his film, which switches back and forth between 1962 Haiti and present-day Paris.
Film Movement

Abstract and unsettling, Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child is a true requiem for the undead, reaching back through Haitian history to that point at which it gyres into myth, in an attempt to return the zombie to its original meaning.

Before George A. Romero’s politically charged Night of the Living Dead (1968) reinterpreted zombies as reanimated, brain-devouring cannibals—the Western world eating itself—the Creole word “zombi” referred to a permanent trance feared by plantation workers in sugarcane fields. The idea that not even death could free slaves from their shackles, that one might be resurrected to perform manual labor for eternity, reflects the cultural psychology of a country disfigured by colonialism.

But Bonello’s film (which opens in New York this Friday) is more peculiar and provocative than a mere history lesson. In his eighth feature, the French writer-director moves back and forth between two settings, interweaving them as if to suggest larger forces, unmoored from time, that move within both. In 1962 Haiti, plantation worker Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou) becomes the victim of a voodoo curse, rising from the dead as a soulless corpse. And in present-day Paris, a coterie of French schoolgirls—one a Haitian refugee descended from Clairvius—dabble in voodoo as a means of remedying issues in their love lives. It’s a film structured to raise tough questions, of cultural appropriation and cosmic justice, inherited trauma and forgotten histories.

For Bonello, Narcisse was both the impetus for Zombi Child and its most overt link to real history. In 1962 Haiti, an urban legend alleges that a man by that name died then came back to life, shambling off into the night. “I had in my mind this image of a man walking for 40 years with his head down,” said Bonello, speaking in a hotel room last fall during the New York Film Festival. “For me, it was a strong and simple image. That was my starting point.”

But Bonello knew he couldn’t simply tell Narcisse’s story, at least not without engaging in some minor form of the very exploitation Zombi Child critiques. “A white French man coming into Haiti and saying, ‘I’m going to make a movie about voodoo,’ that doesn’t work,” he explained. “I had to find a point-of-view that was mine, which is to say one that was French and contemporary.”

Bertrand Bonello
Bonello speaks about “Zombi Child” at the 57th New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center on Oct. 1, 2019 in New York City. “I discovered cinema through horror films, a long time ago,” he tells Fortune.
John Lamparski—Getty Images for Film at Lincoln Center

Correspondingly, Bonello invented the character of Clairvius’s granddaughter, Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), attending an all-girls boarding school in Paris. In his research, the writer-director uncovered one such school that had been founded by Napoleon Bonaparte, whose relationship to slavery in Haiti was significant. When Mélissa befriends the wealthy, white Fanny (Louise Labeque), it’s because the two 15-year-olds bond over their love of horror fiction. But when Mélissa’s heritage comes to light, the lovelorn Fanny is keen to experiment with voodoo, despite understanding little of its roots in colonial oppression.

“You have one simple story, of Clairvius, and another simple story, the love sorrow of Fanny,” explained Bonello. “When you put them together it makes things much more complex. It opens many doors.”

Bonello has explored the quixotic nature of youth before, most forcefully in 2016’s Nocturama, about teens who camp out in a shopping mall after setting off bombs around Paris. That film and Zombi Child share an interest in young people who commit to radical courses of action, not out of malice so much as a desire to change their own circumstances.

“It’s very naïve,” he said, describing Fanny’s efforts to exploit voodoo, which involve pushing Mélissa’s aunt to perform a ritual to heal her heart. “She’s 15. That’s why I accept it. Because in fact, what does she do? She tries to appropriate a culture she does not know.”

Zombi Child
Bonello describes Fanny (Labeque) and her efforts to exploit voodoo in “Zombi Child” as naïve.
Film Movement

That appropriation carries over to the music of Zombi Child, too. In one standout scene, the schoolgirls chant a French trap song, the Belgian rapper Damso’s “N. J Respect R,” in its entirety, as if partaking in some ancient ceremony.

“That song has strong, complicated lyrics, but it’s true to what young girls in Paris are listening to,” said Bonello. “When I did casting for the main roles, I saw maybe 100 girls, and they all knew the lyrics by heart.” The girls’ fixation with Rihanna, and her use of Jamaican dancehall music with tropical beats, subtly heightens the film’s perspective on how pop music represents a globalization of cultures, but also a lingering form of appropriation that was at one point rooted in exploitation. Those song choices stand in sharp contrast to the Clairvius scenes, which include an ambient synth score and are shot through a more surreal, phantasmal lens.

In crafting Zombi Child, Bonello was interested in featuring younger protagonists so as to also reflect upon his own experiences discovering horror as a teen.

“I discovered cinema through horror films, a long time ago,” he said. “In the late ’70s and early ’80s, when I was young, I watched all those films—and I still like them. David Cronenberg, William Friedkin with The Exorcist, Lucio Fulci, George Romero. When I was watching them as a kid, they were entertainment. When I saw them later, around age 25, I realized three things: first, that they were good films; second, that they had good directors; and third, that they had something to say.”

It was by studying Romero’s treatment of race in Night of the Living Dead, for one, that Bonello grew to understand horror as a cover for filmmakers to smuggle into theaters sharp, often radical comments on society.

“They were political, all of them,” he said. “It was a way for these directors to express their anxiety of the world, to go through the cinema of fear. It was something we lost for a couple of decades after that, but that is perhaps coming back now, with Jordan Peele’s films, Get Out and Us. We need to go through the cinema of fear to express our own.”

That said, which terrors in Zombi Child keep Bonello up at night? It’s not that simple, he said, laughing. Abstraction is an aesthetic choice in Bonello’s films, but it also permits him freedom to “build images” while entrusting that their greater meaning will at some point become clear, both to him and the audience.

“It’s not very intellectual,” he said. “It’s more instinctive.” Toward the interview’s end, Bonello mentions David Lynch as one of his heroes mostly for this reason.

“That guy’s doing horror movies all the time, to express his feelings toward the world,” said Bonello. “He’s not inventing anything; instead, he starts with a very simple situation and twists it until it’s a nightmare. This is what I mean by a fear of the world. I started with a very simple idea, and when I finished editing the film, I realized many more complex things came out of it. But I didn’t start with that.”

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