Coma: Bonello’s lockdown dreamscape feels glaringly dated

Bertrand Bonello’s darting, scattershot reflection on the pandemic is trapped in a very particular COVID time capsule.

25 February 2022

By Guy Lodge

Louise Labeque in Coma (2022)Louise Labeque in Coma (2022) © Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed from the 2022 Berlinale 

A year or so ago, when the first wave of COVID-shaped cinema hit the film festival circuit, Bertrand Bonello’s lockdown doodle Coma might have seemed, if not necessarily good, at least somewhat startling: a hybrid jumble of mixed-media essay, screenlife horror and experimental dreamscape, it was resourcefully shot under socially-distanced conditions, using those restrictions to comment on the alienating effects of living in a pandemic.

A year, however, is a long time in a pandemic. We adapt fast to what initially seems strange or panic-inducing; the surreal becomes manageable, and then normal.

All of which is to say that Coma – a film made amid a terrible shock of the new, and intended to convey as much – already feels glaringly dated. Functioning as little but a very particular time capsule of its maker’s very particular, peak-pandemic frame of mind, Bonello’s sunless, doom-laden film serves to make most viewers glad they’re over that particular point, though beyond the general fog of ennui that permeates the whole endeavour, its insights into a present now past are few.

Watching it on a vast cinema screen, surrounded by other befuddled patrons, only highlighted the disjuncture. If any film was made to be viewed alone on an iPhone screen, ideally under a duvet, it’s this one.

Bonello begins the film with an extended dedication to his teenage daughter Anna: it’s his second film made for her, he explains in dawdling voiceover, following 2016’s exhilarating youth-in-revolt thriller Nocturama. That film “may have seemed full of despair,” he says, “but it was a rebirth.”

In contrast, Coma – the despair levels of which make Nocturama seem positively chipper – hovers between birth and death, repeating images of limbo as it promises an imminent new beginning.

For 18-year-olds like Anna, after all, the recent passage to adulthood hasn’t been as free or as reckless as Bonello imagined it six years ago. She gets an onscreen proxy, it seems, in the nameless, taciturn protagonist played by Louise Labeque.

Only ever seen in the confines of her bedroom, with no parents or siblings in evidence, she engages with the outside world only via screens: convening with her school friends on murkily lit Zoom calls, and obsessively browsing the YouTube channel of cult vlogger Patricia Coma (a unblinking, deadpan Julia Faure).

Coma’s self-help videos run the gamut from makeup tutorials to recipes to nihilistic weather reports (“You can’t go out anyway, so never mind”), their sinister undertow escalating in a way that suggests she, too, is feeling the strain of isolation.

Soon enough, Coma is watching the girl as keenly as the girl watches her; the breakdown of reality is further marked by the girl’s imagined conversations between the knockoff Barbie and Ken figures (as voiced by an assortment of French stars, including the late Gaspard Ulliel) in her outgrown dollhouse.

What begin as banal soap-opera exchanges about their plastic personal crises devolve into absurdist non-sequiturs and blankly looped quotations of Donald Trump tweets, another detail that sets Coma in a mercifully past tense, though the wholesale appropriation of Todd Haynes’ naive stop-motion technique from Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story feels less than subversive.

Woven among flimsy gags are vague meditations on climate change, satirical jabs at the legacy of Michael Jackson and philosophical excursions into the nature of free will, or the absence thereof, as demonstrated by the Revelator, an automated memory game to which the girl becomes addicted, only to find that she can’t lose at it.

It’s a scattershot approach that, to its credit, evokes the shattering effect that lockdown living has on one’s mental health and attention span: at its best, Coma’s darting, arrhythmic clatter of tones and ideas is reflective of its protagonist’s predominantly online life, as she skitters between videos, calls and messages, paying only cursory half-attention to any of them.

The audience, however, doesn’t have the luxury of flipping from Coma to another distraction, and after a time, there’s little to separate Bonello’s glazed, metatextual reflection on claustrophobic boredom from claustrophobic boredom itself.

For its maker, who was forced to put larger projects on hold until unrestricted filming could resume, Coma is ultimately a stopgap, defined by its incidental, accidental path to fruition. Bonello completists may eventually pore over it as a career-pausing curio; more casual admirers may prefer to wait for his next rebirth.

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