Coma Review: Bertrand Bonello’s Mournful Temperature Read of a World in Limbo

Coma cultivates gallows humor about the state of things—or rather, the stasis of things.

Coma

Bertrand Bonello’s Coma might be understood as a fascinating update of David Cronenberg’s body horror classic Videodrome, addressing the corporeal, psychological, and existential crises of our hypermediated age. But in place of Brian O’Blivion, Cronenberg’s oracle of the broadcast era, we get a prophet for the age of YouTube, Patricia Coma (Julia Faure), whose surname also suggests the unconscious realm that media lulls us into. And in place of the birth of the new flesh remade by the televisual signal, Coma awakens us to the coming of a new Earth shaped by human-made climate catastrophe.

A heady rush of ideas, the film’s avant-garde mélange of live-action footage, abstract video art, and multiple kinds of animation just barely masks that it’s a rather simple story about a Zoomer’s inner struggle with both her own mortality and that of the world. Never identified by name, this teenage girl (Louise Labeque), stuck at home during one of France’s strict early-pandemic lockdowns, does the sorts of things that many young people have probably been idly doing for the last two years, from having conference calls with friends to passing the time with frivolous games. She also makes dioramas with her old Barbie dolls, frets about climate change, and spends probably too much time watching dubious YouTube videos.

The videos that Coma posts to the internet, which are irregularly woven into the fiber of Bonello’s film, will be familiar to anyone who’s spent any time on Google’s vast video wasteland. Striking an assured, authoritative tone, she presents what amounts to be a kind of almanac of her interests, combined with hard-to-spot paid advertisements.

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For one, Coma spends a lot of time pushing a toy called the Revelator, a Simon-esque repeat-the-pattern game that’s about the size of a fidget spinner. As if by magic (or off-screen Amazon delivery), a Revelator appears in our main character’s possession. As a result of the automatism with which she repeats ever-more-complex patterns and proves incapable of losing at the game, the teen girl is soon taken down an existential wormhole. Does free will exist? As if speaking directly to the girl, Patricia Coma counsels: Absolutely not.

As Coma has it—and by extension the film—life on our world ravaged by climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic, under the watch of Zoom and Google, is a limbo state. From her room, the girl finds herself inhabiting a number of worlds. There’s the micro-society of her friends, who get together virtually to talk about serial killers. Then there’s the soap opera that she’s writing for her Barbies, who increasingly come to life via stop-motion animation as they parrot whatever political discourse or pop-culture news that the girl has recently absorbed from the internet. (One doll is voiced by the late Gaspard Ulliel, star of Bonnello’s Saint Laurent.)

The strangest microcosm that the girl’s bedroom connects to, though, is the “Free Zone” that she dips into when she goes to sleep. It’s a gloomy, day-for-night forest where people that the girl knows who have died appear wordlessly from the trees, and whose smooth, CGI-generated faces have crossed the uncanny valley. More than a mere nightmare, the girl finds herself in an actual limbo, as Coma—who begins appearing in this dream state—tells her. The Free Zone is a creepy place, and Bonello flirts with horror by restricting his camera to the girl’s often frantic point of view, but it’s also the only place where, as Coma also says, free will is possible.

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Less than horror, though, Coma cultivates gallows humor about the state of things—or rather, the stasis of things. The pandemic arrived just as the world appeared to be on the precipice of climate catastrophe, and Bonello finds the serendipity of this combination too neat to not be darkly amusing. Although there’s a story here, Coma is also structured like an essay delivered in wry, aloof prose—a commentary on humanity’s frayed mindset as we’re caught in the space between eras. There’s humor, too, in the cold tone of the film and the affectless demeanor of Labeque’s character. Watching her conduct free will tests by seeing if she can stab herself in the hand without pulling away probably shouldn’t be funny—and yet, it’s difficult to stifle the same sort of illicit giggle her friends let out when they admit that they find Ted Bundy hot.

While Coma articulates the film’s speculative theses during the actual story, Coma is bookended by sequences of low-resolution images narrated by Bonello himself, where, in addition to evoking his project’s anxieties about the future, he dedicates the film to his daughter. Meanwhile, the image during these moments is an indistinguishable mass of motion blur and video artifacts, until a moment right at the end where we get an all-too-familiar montage of forest fires and melting glaciers. It’s as if to say that we’re not to blame for falling into our years of strange dreaming, the world’s coma, but maybe it’s time to wake up.

Score: 
 Cast: Julia Faure, Louise Labeque, Latitia Casta, Gaspard Ulliel, Vincent Lacoste, Louis Garrel, Anas Demoustier  Director: Bertrand Bonello  Screenwriter: Bertrand Bonello  Running Time: 80 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2022

Pat Brown

Pat Brown teaches Film Studies and American Studies in Germany. His writing on film and media has appeared in various scholarly journals and critical anthologies.

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