A Little Bit Fairy Tale:
An Interview with Robin Campillo
By Frank Falisi

“It’s a little . . . David Lynch,” Robin Campillo says, gesturing to the green room at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center. And indeed, despite the low, soft lighting and plush couches, the ambience of a whooshing HVAC and the general stillness are vaguely foreboding. It’s a reference not out of step with Campillo’s most recent film, Red Island (2023), which played at FLC’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2024, and which, like Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, constructs a veneer of a reality in order to puncture it, to beckon the spectator into zones beyond the surface.

Also recalling Blue Velvet, Red Island fixates on a voyeur: Thomas (Charlie Vauselle) is a young boy living on a French military base in Madagascar circa 1970. Unlike Lynch’s work, Campillo locates his film—as he did with the achy, magisterial BPM (2017)—in a specific historical moment. Here in the last gasp of outright French colonialism, Thomas is the son of a low-ranking army man, a member of the occupying French force that lingers as the Malagasy people push towards independence. Campillo devotes the bulk of the runtime to the uncanny paradise the French colonizers have constructed for themselves on the base. Jeanne Lapoirie’s liqueur-like cinematography renders settlement and setting like haywire MGM backlot, the air sickly saturated with too much color and rank sweetness. This is a patrolled plenty, and Thomas seeks refuge from the corrosive masculinity emanating from his father, Robert (Quim Gutiérrez) by gravitating to his mother, Colette (Nadia Tereszkiewicz). The two seem to see their family’s overripe landscape through similar gauze, and the film pushes Thomas towards Colette, making her the most-frequent subject of his looking, and, in turn, one of the few faces that returns his gaze. He also befriends Suzanne (Cathy Pham), a South Asian girl living on-base. The two bond over a shared love of Fantômette, a female superhero the duo pore over in comic form, and Campillo breaks up the film’s sour languor with intermittent fantasias, deliberately cartoonesque sequences that show Fantômette in action, in the imagination of these two adolescent exiles.

Mostly, Thomas watches. From under the dinner table, through a stained-glass window, between the cracks of a clubhouse that looks more like Edison’s Black Maria than an incidental crate, Thomas bears witness to a world he does not understand. The film connects this inscrutability to the dehumanizing of colonialism: for the film’s first hour, the Malagasy people are only glimpsed in wisps of hands and limbs, turning around corners, leaving the shot. But dehumanization spreads to the colonizers too, as Thomas’s inability to grasp the root of his cruel reality breeds a free-floating shame in the young boy. That Thomas can only begin to conceive of the world outside the base once he dresses up as Fantômette—a costume cobbled together from his mother’s clothing—for an illicit late-night wander highlights how that shame is as tied to a nascent queerness as much as it is the effect of colonial rule. Red Island demonstrates the way a certain strain of reactionary masculinity oppresses both the relatively privileged Thomas and the Malagasy characters, though a third act point-of-view shift ensures that this analysis does not equivocate the suffering of occupier and occupied. This is ultimately a film about the struggle that colonized peoples are engaged in just outside the camera frame of white pre-occupation.

I sat down with Campillo before the New York premiere of Red Island to discuss memory in fiction, submerged strands of French colonial history, and escaping reality through film and life.

Reverse Shot: Can you talk a little about what writing a life means to you, especially in the context of writing a film?

Robin Campillo: I was kind of hoping after BPM that I would do a film that was not about my life. Not too soon. But I was speaking with my good friend, Gilles Marchand, who was kind of co-writer of this film. And I evoked this idea that, when I was young, I was living in Madagascar, on a military base. And one day, I dressed up like a kind of young heroine, a superhero. But a young girl. So, I was dressed like that, and I went out on the military base at night, just like, doing a kind of investigation. And I thought it was so funny, that we should try to make a film about that.

After that, I decided, like BPM, it was a film about me but also a film about a change of era. Because I think BPM was a film about the change between the eighties and the nineties, how gay men like me who were really afraid of AIDS decided to get together and not be victims of this epidemic, of this political silence. So, we decided to change the situation. And Red Island is a film about the last days of French Colonialism, so it’s between the sixties and the seventies. What’s weird is that it’s always a film about my own life, but also memories are already fiction. I don’t believe in the past; I think the past is like an illusion, or even a hallucination of our lives. It’s pure material for fiction. I don’t think it’s about me.

RS: Does the form follow how that memory feels? Or how another version of you might feel?

RC: When my brother went to see the film, I told them, it’s not us, you know, it’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We are replaced by weird people who look like us but who are not exactly what we were. So I have all this material, all these memories, all these details and anecdotes. But the most important thing for me is how to create a kind of architecture, a structure based on these things. How does the film work as a pure machine? For instance, I knew that I wanted the first part of the film to be this kind of colonial paradise, in a very cruel way: you don’t see many Malagasy people, it’s white people, French people, and it’s a life out of reality. And the child is trying to understand what’s going on because he thinks the people around him are playing a kind of fairy tale. And when he escapes through the night, he discovers, in fact, the backstage of the colonial situation. Then the film changes its point of view totally, and you’re in the point of view of the Malagasy girl. And then you go through the Malagasy revolution. That was the structure I wanted to build.

RS: There’s a moment in BPM where the organizers engage with gay men who aren’t taking the epidemic seriously yet, where they encounter a similar kind of why would you disrupt our fantasy? How do you think images emerge from these moments of friction, between paradise and something like necessary action?

RC: First of all, this part of French history is not very well known in France. Because when we talk about colonialism in France, it’s really Algeria and Morocco, and that’s it. A little bit of Africa, but not so much. And also, because French colonialism is still around, what we call Françafrique. I realized, doing this film, that colonials like us—I was born in Morocco, I lived in Algeria after independence—after we moved to France for a year, it was a nightmare for us because we found out we were poor. France was boring for us, and so we went to Madagascar, this last shore for French colonialism. It was this last chance to be something, to escape reality.

Lately, I’ve realized I’ve been in the same place for 18 years. And for me, that’s too much. I have to escape because I have the feeling that the old people who died in my building…I’m the next one. So if I want to escape that, I have to go away to another place. And is that feeling from when I was a migrant, as a child? I think we were trying to escape reality. When we finally got back to France, my parents divorced, and we were depressed. Even when we were in Madagascar, the thing is, we knew that this paradise was going to end. We were aware of death, luring us, and then looking at us.

There’s a painting in France by Poussin, The Shepherds of Arcadia. Arcadia is, you know, a fantasy land where everything is in abundance. And in the painting are these shepherds, and they’ve found a kind of grave and on it is written, “Me too, I’m in Arcadia,” and it’s death. The paradise is always haunted by its own end. That’s what we were living in, in Madagascar. There was a kind of melancholy that was always there, like a silent companion. We ignored the Malagasy. I went to school with Malagasy children, but there was always a kind of invisible wall. It was a kind of apartheid, really, to be clear.

RS: And this film is about a transition in history but also a personal one, vis-à-vis the protagonist’s consciousness, and conscience, maybe?

RC: It’s interesting because it’s about independence in Madagascar, it’s that transition. But in fact, it was a total lie: the French army was directing everything. That’s the weird situation I was interested in—in making the audience understand how, as a child, I created a kind of gaze that allowed me to see a little bit through people and through the system without knowing anything about colonialism. I didn’t know but I was still troubled by something. And so, when I got back to France, I had this strange nostalgia that I knew was not normal. For many years, people asked me, Why didn’t you return to Madagascar? But I couldn’t. The fact that I did this film is the way I could return there. This was the only possibility.

RS: The film sort of becomes about looking at the thing just out of frame, this colonial apparatus.

RC: We shot on natural sets in Madagascar, but with my cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, we decided to oversaturate the colors, put too much color in the reality. We decided that it was at the same time natural and a little bit fairy tale, as if we were looking at all of these things with the eyes of a child. Not only the child, the protagonist of the film, but as if all the people in the film were children, mesmerized by the beauty. It was interesting to push the reality into a kind of colonial fantasy, especially in postproduction, when we really pushed the color.

RS: Charlie Vauselle is so good at looking, as Robert. He’s always scrutinizing. What was it like working with him, with a child, on the film?

RC: It’s very interesting. What I loved about him is he was a little bit absent, a little bit in his mind. Most of the time, the children we saw were like, too much for the camera, trying to hypnotize the spectator. And I didn’t like that. I wanted a child who could be lost in his mind. I find it interesting to look at a child on film because sometimes they forget that they’re on set. And that’s fascinating. But I must say, Nadia Tereszkiewicz, who played the mother, has the same ability to be a little bit out of reality. There was a connection between her and Charlie that I thought was fantastic. Sometimes we had to say, Remember? We are shooting a film.