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‘Coma’ Review: Bertrand Bonello’s Destabilizing COVID Doodle Feels Like 80 Minutes of Doomscrolling

Berlin: The "Nocturama" director captures the anxiety of isolation in a sketchy film that features one of Gaspard Ulliel's final roles.

Coma

“Coma”

Berlin International Film Festival

Adhering to what has become a new rite of passage for French filmmakers of a certain pedigree — which is to say, those with the industry clout to get calls returned and favors cashed in on the fly — Bertrand Bonello has gone and made his own pandemic doodle. Like Céline Sciamma, Arnaud Desplechin, and Claire Denis before him, Bonello put a larger-scale project on the back-burner when the lockdowns hit, embraced COVID restrictions — or at least accepted them with a weary Gallic shrug — and dreamed up another bit of socially distanced cinema with few actors, limited sets, and a form wholly dictated by the circumstance of its production.

To this growing (and hopefully soon fading) genre, Bonello offers “Coma,” a hybrid film that differs from the pack in a few notable ways, not least of which by way of tone. Because instead of looking to escape or transcend the doldrums of France’s second or third lockdown, Bonello opted to channel them, making a film in the zeitgeist about the zeitgeist. Of course, the mood of that particular zeit was one of ennui and defeat, and in a rather successful attempt to reflect as much, “Coma” can be a bit of a slog.

As with 2016’s “Nocturama,” Bonello has dedicated “Coma” to his 18-year-old daughter, only here he goes a step further, opening and closing the film with letters addressed to her. “The present has come to a halt, leaving us the past and the future,” say subtitles on a quiet screen. “In this lockdown, silence would have been nice. Everyone has something to say, but what can we really do?” As if to answer that not-so-rhetorical question, he cuts to a teenage face, framed in tight-close up, and launches into the film.

Given the framing, one might expect this unnamed Girl (played by “Zombi Child” star Louise Labeque) to represent Bonello’s daughter, but as the film goes on we find in her as much an analogue for the director himself. Like so many millions worldwide, the Girl has been holed up for some time, interacting with the wider world through any number of screens as she spends her days streaming, FaceTiming, and waiting for life to begin anew. When she’s not killing time with true crime docs or on the YouTube page of Patricia Coma (Julia Faure) — a social media star offering philosophical treatises and weather reports from her own isolation — the Girl creates stories of her own, using the dolls on hand to spin soapy tales of love and infidelity presented as stop-motion sequences.

To the extent that “Coma” follows a linear narrative progression, it is one of breakdown, where the walls between individual activities crumble and realities mix. Live action footage gives way to 2D animation, the murders the girls consume as content all of sudden hit home, the YouTuber Patricia starts watching the Girl, and the dolls — voiced by Louis Garrel, Laetitia Casta, and Gaspard Ulliel, in one of his final roles — go renegade, breaking free from their script to recite dialogue pulled directly from the Twitter feed of one Donald J. Trump.

Almost a mixed-media essay that uses the narrative form as a bit of bait-and-switch, “Coma” further destabilizes what’s real by mixing in archival footage of Gilles Deleuze and clips from Henri-Georges Clouzot’s famously unfinished “Inferno,” imparting an overall effect that, two decades ago, might have been called channel surfing. Today it seems more reflective of digital viewing patterns, of the nonstop fire hose of #content and bad news spewed so vociferously that one cannot surf but drown. With this overall thesis, that no matter what we watch or how we try to distract ourselves our minds will eventually circle back to the same social and ecological anxieties, Bonello has essentially created “Doomscrolling: The Motion Picture.”

As they say online, where’s the lie? If one cannot argue with Bonello’s general appraisal of the here-and-now (well, more like the here-and-then, but more on that in a second), one can neither deny his skill, particularly in a standout sequence where participants in a Zoom call suddenly bear witness to a crime.

At the same time, the project’s limited shelf life becomes all the more apparent in another late-in-film sequence, which finds the YouTuber Patricia live-announcing a raffle of countries that will not be getting a certain life-saving cure.

Structured like a bleak countdown, the scene builds to the news that France too has been eliminated; that, much like a coma, this restless slumber will not break. As a snapshot of a very specific moment (that of winter 2021, when COVID vaccines arrived in France far later than they had in other Western countries, to say nothing of still ongoing shortages in the global south), the scene packs a punch. But that’s the thing about snapshots: They isolate and enshrine fleeting moments in time while the world keeps turning. And if, when printed and sent off for posterity, a snapshot like “Coma” offers a small degree of archival value — while answering the question Bonello poses at the start — it might also arrive as a postcard from a time all-too-thankfully gone by.

Grade: C

“Coma” premiered at the 2022 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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