There have been a number of “lockdown movies” since the outbreak of Covid, and most of them have been unfortunate affairs. While it’s true that limitations often spur creativity, too many filmmakers, both narrative and experimental, have struggled to articulate their own unresolved feelings of isolation and despair, with the results too often veering into narcissism. If Bertrand Bonello’s Coma is the first film to find something genuinely bracing to say about the Age of Covid, it’s probably because he mostly avoided exploring his own experience. Instead, Coma is a work of remarkable empathy, in which Bonello attempts to understand the psychology of lockdown from the perspective of his 18-year-old daughter Anna.
Bonello bookends Coma with rather direct, first-person addresses to his daughter, wherein he explains his frustration as a parent, witnessing Anna going through the loneliness and anxiety of the pandemic but being unable to really help her. As he explains somewhat obliquely, this is really just a more attenuated version of every parent’s experience, of seeing your child move into a world that is decidedly not yours, one you cannot control and often cannot understand. In a sense, Coma is Bonello’s attempt to create concrete metaphors for both his daughter’s psychological states and his own inability to fully grasp them.
An unnamed teenager (Louise Labeque) is confined to her family’s apartment during lockdown, but we never see anyone else in her family. Her encounters with the larger world are all highly mediated. She has a Zoom call with friends. She makes up a complicated soap opera with her old Barbie dolls. And she becomes increasingly enamored with a YouTuber named Patricia Coma (Julia Faure), who claims to be providing guidance on how to improve your life. Patricia comes across as a bizarre combination of Jordan Peterson and pop star/performance artist Poppy, perhaps as envisioned by Duke of Burgundy director Peter Strickland. She is severe, vaguely goth, always appearing in isolation to provide quasi-Deleuzian advice on the dissolution of the self. Her primary objective is convincing her viewers that free will is an illusion, that we are all passive vessels for a predetermined course of events.
Bonello perfectly captures the anxiety each generation feels with respect to the next one, their own children. Not only have we brought them into a world on the brink of collapse — ecological, economic, political – but we cannot offer them any tools to navigate this world. Covid, then, can seem merely an accelerant for an apocalypse already well begun. Adding to our fears is the fact that the Internet has assumed the role that we cannot. We have no answers, and into that void step any number of gurus and influencers, promising to make sense of the universe, through heightened materialism, conspicuous minimalism, neo-fascist fantasies, and so on.
Bonello wisely keeps Patricia Coma’s overall agenda ambiguous. And perhaps most tellingly, she eventually loses the plot herself, admitting that like every other adult in the teenager’s life, she is at a loss for the answers. The only place the young girl seems to experience connection is in her dreams, when she is transported to a limbo dimension called the Free Zone. Patricia appears here as well, as a guide through this liminal space filled with unseen threat. Coma suggests that people forced to become young adults in this era are aching for some palpable reality, but often confuse affect with danger. As the girl and her friends chat about their favorite serial killers, we see that mortality is always hovering in front of them, as an opportunity to feel something at long last.
Bonello has described Coma as a film about a teenager who “has a special power: she can bring us into her dreams — but also her nightmares.” But of course, he is really describing cinema itself, a mechanism for visualizing our hopes and fears, in the hope that making them public property could serve as a point of human connection. Bonello obviously understands that the cinema, as such, is over – that this is not how our children share their dreams. Coma offers no solutions, but suggests that even if parents and children, cinema and TikTok, free choice and the algorithm, represent incommensurate worlds, forging even a flawed connection between them is our own hope against complete alienation.
DIRECTOR: Bertrand Bonello; CAST: Julia Faure, Louise Labeque, Gaspard Ulliel, Laetitia Casta; DISTRIBUTOR: Film Movement; IN THEATERS: January 26; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 20 min.
Originally published as part of Berlin Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 2.