Bertrand Bonello’s bouncing off the walls in this free-associative grab-bag of early lockdown anxieties.
The tricky part of making a good pandemic movie is that the experiential components of the past two-and-a-half years — mostly, an oscillation between wall-climbing tedium and uncertain terror over societal collapse or imminent widespread death — can’t be wrestled into feature-length narrative structures as readily as dramas of hardship or inspirational uplift. With Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, Radu Jude found a winning strategy by organizing his satire of COVID-era absurdities into episodic sketches, an approach repurposed to even more disorienting effect by Bertrand Bonello in his attention-deficit delight Coma.
What previous generations may have compared to channel-surfing scans here as closer to the distracted, fidgety fugue state entered during smartphone usage. Bonello’s dedication title card singles out his teenaged daughter (who’s also credited with contributing a painting of Jeff Bezos, a significant figure in this free-associative whirlwind of modernity), and his disjointed methods emulate such adolescent time-sucks as scrolling TikTok or flipping back and forth between apps to scrounge for another minute’s worth of fresh content.
One such young girl labeled only as Young Girl (Louise Labèque) curates the playlist of dreams, fantasies, and YouTube clips that fill out the eighty well-portioned minutes of a film too thoughtful to be dismissed as a lark made to keep busy in lockdown. Though that’s the precise condition captured with stilled concentration and Dadaist humor as our nameless protagonist amuses herself during quarantine and, as did we all, gradually loses her grip on normalcy.
Without much in the way of company, she staves off solitude by forming a parasocial relationship with the fabulous Patricia Coma (Julia Faure), a lifestyle vlogger pushing extra-strength blenders capable of making a hot soup from raw vegetables. Over time, her monologues to camera stray in increasingly abstract directions, expounding on principles of determinism then tested by the Young Girl in futile efforts at self-harm she finds her body won’t carry out.
This notion of celebrity, both blasé in its no-budget lack of glitz and all-consuming in its potential to inspire obsession, seeps into the psychology of the Young Girl and reiterates itself in her other activities. On a group Zoom with some galpals, they discuss their favorite serial killers as if it’s a debate over which member of BTS is dreamiest; she casts her Barbie dolls in elaborate soap operas brought to life by stop-motion animation, and then makes them digress into recitations of Trump tweets or playacted incest fantasies. She absorbs and scrambles culture, remaking it in her own fluctuating, disaffected image.
If this suggests the image of synapses firing wildly due to under-stimulation, then the dark side to that grab-bag of mental response comes by night, when nightmares shot in first-person toddle through dark, sinister woods to the sound of bloodcurdling shrieks. The daily agenda of non sequiturs and ennui comes to look closer to a survival response, a way to keep the brain occupied until enough hours have been whiled away that a return to bed has been duly earned. This rare combination of numbing days punctuated by the occasional spike of petrified intensity cuts to the core of the COVID zeitgeist, but also has the nifty additional effect of inducing the state it describes, its stream of consciousness sinking the viewer into a lower wakefulness. (Hence the title?)
Bonello himself introduces the film with a loftily academic voiceover accompanied by footage from his own Nocturama, the gist being that he considers this project a “gesture” rather than cinema as we know it. My first thought was that this phrase talks around the caveat that Coma is a minor work produced more as the realization of a thought experiment, as opposed to the official Next Movie (sci-fi romance with Léa Seydoux due next year) he had to put on hold. This couldn’t be further from the truth, the deadpan levity and razor-edged awareness of Gen Z’s present both notable new dimensions to the corpus of a beguiling, unpredictable virtuoso.
Published 4 Oct 2022