Sex, lies and sundowners: Robin Campillo on turning his army brat childhood into a film

Estimated read time 6 min read


Obin Campillo’s latest film, “Red Island”, beautifully captures his childhood memories in Madagascar as the son of a soldier, who was referred to as an “army brat” by the Anglo-Saxon community. The family had been stationed there during the early years of the island’s independence from French colonial rule. As a 10-year-old, he explored the lush and stunning surroundings while being exposed to the taboo topic of sexuality among adults, their sorrow at being forced to leave this paradise, and the growing anti-colonial sentiments of the Indigenous people. Much like young Jim in JG Ballard’s “Empire of the Sun” (portrayed by Christian Bale in Spielberg’s film adaptation), the boy enjoys absolute freedom in the midst of the chaos of war-torn Shanghai, albeit with a sunnier backdrop and an air of seductive languor.

When I meet Campillo in the London offices of his UK distributor Curzon, he is a dynamic, athletic and yet also somehow cherubic figure with close-cropped grey hair (you can almost see him as a little kid), sparkling with energy and eagerness to talk about this movie, along with his career and what it all adds up to so far.

For a significant period of time, he has held a prominent position in the realm of French and global film, serving as both editor and screenwriter for acclaimed director Laurent Cantet’s films, such as Time Out and The Class, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Additionally, he has directed his own films and received critical acclaim for his cult classic neo-zombie movie, They Came Back, which was adapted into a successful French TV series. His gripping drama, Eastern Boys, was nominated for César awards and won an award at the Venice Film Festival.

And most prominently, his overwhelmingly passionate 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) in 2017 – based on his own experiences as a gay man in 80s Paris, working for the activist group Act Up, demanding action on Aids – was the film that Pedro Almodóvar declared to be his favourite at Cannes and had Barry Jenkins raving on social media. Now he has surrendered to the flow of memory and reached back into his own past.

‘It took me 50 years to realise’ … Robin Campillo.

Display the image in full screen mode.

I inform him that the films “Red Island” and “120 BPM” demonstrate his strong theme of freedom, including its opportunities and obligations, joys and sorrows. He responds with tentative acceptance. He reflects, “During my time with Act Up and in Madagascar, I never thought of these as film-worthy events. However, when I look back at Madagascar, I can vividly recall all of it. That’s when I started my directorial career, albeit unknowingly. It took me five decades to recognize it.”

He expresses an interest in the process of transition, when the old ways transform into new ones. In the film “120 BPM,” he depicts the 1980s as a time of fear for gay men due to the emerging epidemic, but also highlights the role of Act Up in bringing about a new era of empowerment and resistance. In “Red Island,” the story centers around the quiet entitlement of French imperialism in the 1960s being challenged by the rise of independence movements in the 1970s.

His upbringing was a complex mixture of French culture: He was born in Morocco and grew up in a colonial setting. Despite his family’s strong French identity, they were apprehensive about living in France due to their lower socio-economic status. This changed when they briefly relocated to Metz in Lorraine, a bleak and frigid place where they became aware of their poverty. However, their move to Algeria, where his father was involved in the transportation of France’s nuclear weapons, and then to Madagascar, felt like a dream for the young boy.

According to the speaker, his experience was actually a fabricated reality created by adults who were unable to explain the situation to him. He saw it as true happiness, but in reality, the grownups were exaggeratedly trying to convince him of this happiness by putting on a show similar to Sesame Street on television. However, behind this dream, there were always military personnel disguised in camouflage. Campillo references a concept from Gilles Deleuze about being imprisoned in the dreams of others. Similarly, the Malagasy people were confined within the dream of French imperialism.

A time of fear … 120 BPM.View image in fullscreen

The movie depicts the instances of racism and hypocrisy surrounding sexual relationships on the island. Soldiers were officially allowed and even subtly encouraged to engage with the women at the brothel, but the mere thought of developing romantic feelings for one of them was met with horror. One particularly astounding scene in the film portrays a French officer of this nature undergoing an exorcism by a priest. According to Campillo, this actually happened and he discovered it later in life while researching for the film. He explains, “My parents would talk about soldiers who were enchanted by the local women. They would refer to it as being under a magical spell. But it was really a product of racial dynamics, a fantasy.”

According to him, the entire system was patronizing: “In the narrative, Thomas is a minor. Colette (representing his mother) is considered a child compared to her husband Robert. Robert is also seen as a child in relation to his superior, while the Malagasy are seen as children in the eyes of the French colonists.” In both the film and real life, the boy named Thomas (who is actually Robin himself) had a close friend named Suzanne (in real life, Nicole) who was a little girl his age and they did everything together. When they were forced to leave Madagascar, it was a heart-wrenching experience and the end of their childhood.

After his previous film received great fame at Cannes, one may assume that he would be disappointed that this new one was not selected for the festival. However, Campillo remains unfazed and acknowledges that he cannot predict the thoughts of the festival’s director, Thierry Frémaux. Despite sending a message to Frémaux advocating for the inclusion of his film, he received a simple response stating that a choice had to be made. Campillo graciously acknowledges the competitive nature of Cannes and celebrates the successes of his fellow filmmakers such as Catherine Corsini and Justine Triet.

Currently, he is creating a futuristic film based on the concept of his 17-year-old daughter, envisioning what she might be like when she reaches 90 years old. However, he is contemplating which actress to cast for the role. He considers Charlotte Rampling and Susan Sarandon, and also asks for my opinion on Emma Thompson. This is a fantastic suggestion – the idea of Emma Thompson playing Campillo’s adult daughter in the future is definitely something not to be missed.


You May Also Like

More From Author