A contemporary cliché that weakly attempts to diagnose what ails us in modern life is the idea of being addled by technology––of our minds and attention spans swamped by screens, content, scrolling. But as the pandemic hit this notion gained a new relevance: it’s not that the virtual realm of content and media was luring us away from our reality––faced with an indefinite lockdown, it had finally become our sole one. Even though this can be poorly rendered by some, it’s the more sensitive and aware artists, such as Bertrand Bonello with his new feature Coma, that remind of the urgency to confront it.
Like the best films on this topic, Coma is anything but a navel-gazing work, and more one of imaginative empathy. It is not Being Bertrand Bonello, but addressed to and concerning a person of a far-removed generation and gender: his teenage daughter Anna. Some amusing early interactions with pop culture, especially music, come from this cross-generational conversation: “turn that garbage off” et al. But Bonello looks at the Zoomer state of mind, as he does for much else of importance, and has cutting, perceptive and troubling things to say.
Coma begins in a gorgeously shot prologue simply showing eerily out-of-focus clips of his film Nocturama accompanied by plangent music newly composed by Bonello himself and a voiced-over letter to this daughter that muses on the travails of the current era, honoring her mature response to the cessation of typical life. Though its structure is modular, the main point-of-view is accorded to an unnamed girl (Zombi Child‘s Louise Labeque) in her late teens, clearly inspired by Anna. She’s ensconced in her bedroom, plugged into YouTube and Zoom, and—in something Bonello strongly hints is related—plunges into some weird, weird dreams when nighttime hits. Revealingly, she’s never depicted using a smartphone outside FaceTime. And we don’t see many overt references to the pandemic either––talk about a signifying absence.
Her main screen time obsession is dispatches from YouTube influencer Patricia Coma (Julia Faure, styled to resemble a doppelgänger of Anna). Not based on anyone in particular from the anglophone or francophone internet worlds, her métier is elegantly poised banality offering hollow tips on “living a better life,” ironic weather reports (not this film’s only reference to David Lynch), and shilling fashionable gimmick items—a color-coded memory game ominously called the Revelator, and the Crudamix, a food processor with sharp, interlocking jaws.
It’s a portal through the looking glass, Coma’s show, and it begins to merge with the film’s other surreal strands, including a Barbie doll-enacted soap opera dotted with canned laughter and Trump references, comic book animation, and interactions with other locked-down peers on Zoom. Thematic motifs, pop-music needle drops, and paranoia pile up exponentially, embodied by a particularly alarming friend group call on the hottest American serial killer––is it Ted Bundy or Ed Gein?
Coma flies by in 80 brisk minutes. Bonello had enough material here, enough ideas, to have gone longer, but that would dispel its peculiar rhythm, ending as it does with the sensation of being shaken out of a dream-laden sleep. I immediately wanted to watch it again, “immediately’ being a figure of speech––a few weeks hence should be enough time to marinate on its ideas. And to look up one of Bonello’s key reference points: a lecture by continental philosopher Gilles Deleuze (whose work is some of the finest academic film theory, for those who haven’t formally studied it) at the prestigious French film school La Fémis in 1987. A key passage from it goes: “Beware of the dreams of others, because if you are caught in their dream, you are done for.” How valuable it is to have this pandemic-era dispatch from Bonello, one of the only directors since Lynch to grasp that in dreams begin responsibility.
Coma premiered at the 2022 Berlinale.