LES REVENANTS / THEY CAME BACK: Robin Campillo interview
In 2005 I had the opportunity to conduct a few interviews with filmmakers who were presenting their first, second or third feature film at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. These were done for a magazine called YDN (Young Designers Network). This is the second of those I will reprint here. (The first one is located here)
LES REVENANTS / THEY CAME BACK (2004)
A film by Robin Campillo
What do you get when you cross a zombie film with a social drama? You get a film like LES REVENANTS, but that still isn’t actually a totally accurate description of Robin Campillo’s directorial debut. Campillo, who has worked frequently with director Laurent Cantet, either as a co-writer or an editor on such films as L’EMPLOI DU TEMPS (2001) and VERS LE SUD (2004) (and four years later on the Palme D’Or winning ENTRE LES MURS) finally has a chance to step up and do his own thing and the toned down and rather offbeat LES REVENANTS shows an interesting look into the zombie genre. Only this time instead of chomping on human flesh, the newly returned dead must somehow get back into society. The harmless zombies have been put in camps at first, but that doesn’t seem to solve the problem, so now the people are faced with the problem of these ‘undesirables’.
The film opens with a classic image, that of hundreds of staggering undead who slowly roam the inner streets of some unnamed town. The only striking difference with the classic zombies we’ve all come to know so well is that these zombies are not decomposing. They’re all dressed in their best clothing and actually look like they’re going to attend Sunday mass. And Campillo gives us his best clue yet, that this movie is a gigantic metaphor. There are many plot holes as to reasons why they come back or the absurdity of no one really alerting others of this strange phenomenon. It’s just something to be dealt with. There is no classic news footage of what is happening in the rest of the world. It’s almost like this is an isolated incident in a small French town.
What happens is that some loved ones of the returning dead want to be rekindled, while other shun their lost loved ones. The film just poses the question in a TWILIGHT ZONE way, as in, the dead suddenly come back and now what? How do we deal with this, how do we manage to get along? There are some rather interesting takes on classic zombie mythology theories in the film, which add new insights. Such as the idea of ‘the echo’. The echo meaning, that the undead are perhaps not present in an individual rational self thinking way, but are merely acting as a sort of echo from their former lives. When most of them can’t really function in their old jobs, such as a graphic designer, they are pushed back to do simple factory tasks.The allegory for the immigrant who is slow to adjust to a new society and is not able to speak the language becomes apparent very fast.
The look of the film is very clean and stylish. Shot with love for the widescreen frame, there is a lot happening while at the same time being very sedated. Much like all the people in the film, not just the undead. It all feels like the people in town are still in shock with this bizarre occurrence and don’t know how to deal with it. The film at times has a still life quality to it as you just glaze over the scenery where this is all happening. After a while the pace and the suspense kind of pick up as it is noticed by certain townspeople that the undead rarely sleep and some even go out at night and, well, hang out with other undead people. Certain plot twists aren’t tied up in the end, but you don’t mind because the biggest plot twist was at the beginning and if you can take that and roll with it, you certainly can with the rest of the film.
And only the French could pull of a love scene between the female lead and her zombie co-star and not make you puke.
Interview with Robin Campillo
Baris Azman: Being a fan of the classic zombie genre, I wanted to ask, where did the idea come from to make LES REVENANTS?
Robin Campillo: There are two different things. I wanted to do, what the Americans call ‘WHAT IF films’ with a very simple idea. One of my favorite films is THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957, dir. Jack Arnold) and for me that film is quite mathematical. The idea of a man that gets shorter and shorter is presented in a very logical way. And I just took the idea of ‘what if the dead came back’ and tried to present it in a mathematical and at times, in a non-logical way.
The other thing was, that in a time span of two years a few friends of mine passed away. That was weird, because I wasn’t really sad, but in a strange state. It wasn’t like mourning, but in a world of strange sensations. Because I didn’t knew where they went. And I wanted to translate these sensations. The way you feel things around you, just like the character of Rachel (Géraldine Pailhas) in the film, I think that the suffering is too much for her. Because her boyfriend died a few years ago, but she tries to ignore it. But it’s like a physical thing, when you’re physically hurt, your brain creates some substance for you to not feel the pain, like aneasthetic substances. The mood of the film resembles this kind of anaesthetic feeling. Like the suffering just won’t come.
Two of my friends died in the same month and I suddenly felt like they came back. Like they weren’t quite gone. I felt a little bit as if I were living with them and after a month, I let them go. So the paradoxical movement is in the center of the film for me.
Like the dead have to come back, for the mourners to realize that they are in fact gone?
Exactly, we don’t own them. We always hope that we know people, but we don’t even know them in life, let alone when they’re dead. I don’t like the fact that we’re so attached. We are trying to find out where they are, how they are.
I was also inspired by an article that referred to old people as ‘the community that awaits us’. I liked the idea, of the dead people, as a community or a minority. Around the same time in France, there was also a place in the north, where the Red Cross created a white hole in the ground. Which housed all the refugees and at night you could see all the people trying to cross the highway at night, to reach the canal so they could flee to England.
And I saw these images and it looked like a Romero film (dir. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD, DAY OF THE DAY), the fantastic dimensions were already there in real life. And when you take my personal intimate parts and ideas and then these real life images and put them together, something for me happened. We’re talking about people who have no place in our society and who aren’t accepted there thus they become socially dead. You don’t know what to do with them. And I didn’t want to make a film with a main message but with different echos or mirrors. So you get these different views on the situation which hopefully makes you think about it. But not at a sensationalist level, but more of a social issue way.
The film mixes the sensibilities of two very different genres. On one side there is the ‘zombie exploitation genre’ and on the other side you have a kind of down to earth social drama. How did you choose or balance your visual style to suit both of those elements?
The Romero references were not so clear in my mind when we shot the film. When I later saw them again, I realized how inspired I was by the images. I like ZOMBIE (French title for DAWN OF THE DEAD, 1978) very much and the first one of the trilogy; NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). The fantastic dimensions exits even in the social issues, like I mentioned with the refugee camps. We don’t talk so much about social issues with a fantastical flavour. For me it was very obvious to use it that way. Jeanne Lapoirie (director of photography) and I wanted a small level of anticipation in the film, because it’s like a fable, so the city in the film is not a real city. I told her, we have two things to remember during the shooting, that this city is in a glass dome, like a science fiction film. Like the people are living in a microcosmos of the world. And we shot the film in the summer, but we made it look like winter. So it’s hot and cold at the same time, exactly like the dead people in the film. I was also inspired by the work of Canadian photographer Jeff Wall. He has these large frames and you see a town in them, with very small people somewhere in front of the frame. From afar it looks quite peaceful, but when you take a closer look you can see that someone in there is being beaten by the police.
“Boy’s Cutting Through a Hedge” © Jeff Wall 2003
We wanted the dead people just to be like photographs of themselves. The memory of them actually coming back. We remember them in the best Sunday clothes and very clean and slightly smiling. So as a visual style, even in the day we put on a lot of lights on them so that there weren’t any shadows on or around them. We tried to make it large and clean.
Was it difficult to get a social zombie drama financed?
Well, when investors saw the project they projected their own thoughts and feelings into it and I didn’t tell them otherwise. They maybe thought that they would get a Romero film out of it. (laughs) I just let them think what they thought. I just wanted the money. In France, there are now a lot of people who want to invest in films that are a little bit different. Though we didn’t have a lot, but a budget of two-and-a-half million euros for a first feature wasn’t bad. It was difficult to just make the film look bigger, but on the scenes where the zombies are all on the streets, on the actual day we only had fifty or so there, but we duplicated them with digital effects. I enjoyed the use of digital effects, because you can work the image exactly how you want it. Add in sun, or clouds in the sky. If I was rich I would use it on every film. It was very interesting.
The fantastical part of the film is influenced by Romero and Wall. Where do the inspirations for the social drama part of the film come from?
I’m very inspired by Alan Resnais (HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR, 1959) and a little by Francois Truffaut’s FAHRENHEIT 451. I liked that film because it was a science fiction film that wasn’t so far in the future. A possible future of our present. I like the idea that you change a little part of our reality and keep the rest the same. The audience is then always trying to find a place in this world that looks so much like ours, but in reality, isn’t.
How was the film perceived by critics and audiences?
Overall the critics in France we’re positive or impressed. Or so I’d like to think (laughs). But some people thought the film was a little bit cold. But for me it was important that the film not become a melodrama. That would be too easy, where you’d have people crying over the dead and everything is allright after. But no, you’re just sick and not well in your own body, as an audience. I wanted to make a film that dealt more with sensations than emotions. I prefer sensations over emotions. For this kind of film, it’s really easy to make the audience cry, to push the right buttons, but I didn’t want that to do that. I think death has something to do with inhumanity, something which is not human and in our lives we’re part of inhumanity. The scene where a woman lets her dead zombie child fall from a balcony, for me she is more human than her husband, who clings on to the undead child. To be human you have to sometimes be cold or be indifferent. It’s not like you always have to be generous and warm. My film is about this sensation, of cold, of being a little bit distant. To let the past be the past. Life is actually always this struggle, between the hot and the cold, to be indifferent or generous.
Robin Campillo: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0133028/