Through various visual languages and loose pieces of storytelling, Bertrand Bonello’s pandemic-themed picture Coma (2022) deploys all forces of experimentalism. It’s not an easy film to digest, yet it might find its cult following among fans of independent cinema.
French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello forged a name for himself back in 2011, around the time when the critically acclaimed House of Tolerance (2011) was released. Movie festival goers might know plenty more of his works – the iconoclastic Nocturama (2016) about a bombing in Paris, as well as the genre melange of Zombi Child (2019) that we’ve included in our top movies of 2019 list. Bonello’s style often exhibits the filmmaker’s scattered inspirations, and the latest title in the director’s dossier, Coma (2022), might as well be his most unstructured and free-solo work to date.
Produced during the pandemic, Coma (2022) reunites Bonello with Louise Labeque (star of Zombi Child (2019) and daughter of the filmmaker), who plays a young girl stuck in a room during the lockdown. Days blend into a shapeless pulp, filled with episodes of a lifestyle vlog of charismatic content creator Patricia Coma, hours of playing a memory training game, or imagining a soap opera. When the sun sets, the girl enters a mysterious realm of dreams – known as the Free Zone – in which she appears to be a para-medium of sorts, meeting various individuals – both dead and alive. Venturing into Free Zone collapses the wall dividing what’s real and what’s not.
Coma (2022) is an expressionist examination of solitude and alienation, interpreted through several audiovisual styles and narrative concepts. Bonello gracefully sways between genres and forms to elicit the same degree of lethargy that the protagonist experiences. It’s her own world of dreams and imagination running wild, but also a mashup of everything that she’s subconsciously injected by the external parties – such as Patricia Coma. Her mind’s a sponge that welcomes any kind of trash that will fill the holes that reveal spots of the world outside – a cold and unwelcoming world.
As a result of this mashup, there’s a bit of everything. When the girl stares at a dollhouse and begins to plot a complex drama, Bonello combines a sketched animation with stop-motion, adding occasional bursts of laugh track as a nod to traditional sitcoms. As the dolls, voiced by, among others, Gaspard Ulliel, burble on about some petty dramas, their dialogues begin to commingle with what has been recently mentioned in Coma’s vlogs. Nothing is decidedly on either of the sides of existence, and Bonello intentionally lets these concepts leak and spill into each other. That’s clearly the director’s criticism of the mass culture, which is so openly based on recycled ideas that flow between mediums.
When we enter the nightmarish realm of Free Zone, everything turns grainy and dark, with a first-person perspective that adds to the creepiness of walking in the forest with the protagonist, as she’s stalked by mute figures inspired by the Slenderman stories. Visuals-wise, Coma (2022) never ceases to surprise, despite its minute budget. Each form and method deployed adds to the idea of a dreamy world where time no longer exists.
When the protagonist puts down the mind game – a mind-numbing time killer – she tunes into the world of Patricia Coma. The film sneaks surrealism very smartly, mainly through the videos that capture brief moments when Coma breaks through the screen and directly impacts the protagonist’s life. The vlogger talks about pretty much everything – the meaning of life, as well as new kitchen appliances. Given such a wide range of topics, Julia Faure, who plays Patricia, becomes a strangely haunting presence. Faure makes the best use of her on-screen charm to make Coma get under your skin thanks to her authoritative posture, so common among self-proclaimed coaches and online experts with dubious backgrounds. She won’t let go until you’ve consumed all her videos, purchased the silly memory game she sells, and became her zombie ant – just like the main character of Coma (2022).
Unlike most pandemic-themed films, the anchor of Bonello’s story does not reflect on the fears of isolation but rather the mundanity of being locked within four walls. The protagonist isn’t afraid of getting sick at all, and she’s more fed up with the state of the world, lost and disconnected emotionally, to the point where her own imagination creates a more engaging reality to live in. Therefore, escaping into the places and stories born in her head seems to be a coping mechanism, a way to handle all the grand problems thrown at an individual – the existence of free will or what happens to us after we die. That’s also bolstered by the omnipresent Patricia Coma, who seems stuck in the protagonist’s mind like a parasite.
At the same time, the French filmmaker subliminally indicates that the pandemic affects the girl’s mind, causing it to travel to sometimes odd, sometimes worryingly disturbing areas. An example of the latter is a fascination with serial killers that the girl shares with her peers, as she discusses various murder stories with blushed faces. During a single online discussion occurs an event that deceits the audience, tricking us into questioning what’s real and what’s in the confused head of the protagonist.
Once again, Bonello blurs the line, leaving us empty-handed.
While I’m at it, Labeque’s presence feels reduced mainly to a mere concept. She’s a sketch of a character that exists to be a guinea pig that the director patiently studies. No detail about her life is ever revealed, hence, she rarely becomes more than a studied object. That’s very limiting to Labeque herself, whose sulky eyes and constant jaded look quickly wear off. Since Coma (2022) adheres to the principles of a character study, our connection with the protagonist is seriously jeopardized.
Perhaps too esoteric for most tastes, Coma (2022) will likely drown in the sea of content. And that may be, as well, the natural cycle of life of an arthouse answer to a specific event. In any other circumstances, Coma (2022) would not get made. There’s no doubt that the film constitutes one of the more obscure projects that tackle the many faces of the pandemic. But when stripped of its timeline setting, Bonello’s little movie is too all-over-the-place to stick longer. Like most pandemic-themed films, this one also proves the theory that despite the size of the tragedy, it’s either too early or too late to make a film that captures the conflicting emotions tied to the COVID-19 era.