In the Bedroom: Bertrand Bonello on Coma

By Adam Nayman

Officially, Bertrand Bonello’s last three features comprise a triptych about youth, but there’s also a shadow interpretation waiting to be made of Nocturama (2016), Zombi Child (2019), and Coma as an extended, eccentric treatise on horror-movie history and aesthetics—call it a self-reflexive Trilogy of Terror. Whatever its debts to Le diable probablement (1977), Nocturama hewed closer to Romero than Bresson, restaging the late-capitalist tragedy of Dawn of the Dead (1978) in a Parisian department store minus any visible zombies, but with the creeping sense of persecution and dread intact. Less successfully, but with true daring, the partially Haitian-set Zombi Child walked with Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur down the path of mordant, morbid post-colonial allegory, waving at Candyman (1992) and The Craft (1995) along the way. And now, made deep in the throes of COVID lockdown—direct from the director’s own home in Paris—comes the skeleton-crew vision of Coma, which borrows its title from noted technophobe Michael Crichton and its bad vibes from David Lynch, Kurosawa, Kiyoshi, and Unfriended (2014), raw materials it duly dunks in a high-speed blender.

That Cuisinart analogy isn’t a throwaway, by the way: Bonello is cinephile enough to remember that Unfriended—one of the great studio B-movies of the new millennium, and uniquely Deleuzian besides—peaked with a possessed kid shoving his hand in a food processor in the midst of a group chat. He pays homage in Coma by having Julia Faure’s eponymously surnamed character, a popular YouTube influencer, do likewise during one of her abstruse yet accessible instructional videos. That Faure’s ever-deadpan Patricia Coma suffers no apparent injury in the process speaks both to her strangely ephemeral, quietly menacing nature (she’s the ghost in Coma’s machine) and the crypto-Surrealist ethos of Bonello’s film, which unfolds as a veritable nocturama: a guided tour through twilight zones plucked from the collective pop-cultural subconscious. Coma’s dream logic is as old as Jean Cocteau, whose famous maxim that “living is a horizontal fall” comes to mind via Bonello’s relentlessly subdividing structure and recurrent supine imagery. If Patricia Coma and her bizarro self-help bromides suggest a very contemporary sort of internet Svengali, then Louise Labèque’s unnamed, digitally anesthetized protagonist—splayed eternally in her bedroom purgatory, iPhone and laptop at the ready—is a stand-in for her cozily dissociated, habitually doom-scrolling constituency, glued to her screens with eyes wide shut.

Coma opens in epistolary mode, with a long passage of onscreen text (projected silently overtop of the climax of Nocturama) announcing the project as a dedication to Bonello’s stepdaughter, Anne. It’s an overture which obliges us to consider that Labèque is playing a version of same, but either way, “The Young Girl,” as she’s referred to in the credits, is not a particularly dynamic presence. In making the inevitable comparison between Coma and Jane Schoenbrun’s recent screen-life freak-out We’re All Going to the World’s Fair (2021)—a movie drawing from a similar well of formal and thematic influences—the major difference comes in the films’ respective approaches to character and performance. Where Schoenbrun syncs her film to the erratic rhythms of her doll-eyed pre-teen lead Anna Cobb, Bonello uses Labèque’s passive, statuesque blankness as a foil to his own formal gamesmanship.

In the absence of clear ideology (like Nocturama) or mythic exposition (as in Zombi Child), the backstory of Coma’s heroine is reduced to production design and scattered intellectual properties, tchotchkes that mark her as a child of James Dean and Pikachu. The Girl’s submissive relationship to mass media, meanwhile, is synecdochized by her fascination with a Patricia Coma–approved device called a “Revelator,” which obliges its user to tap out progressively precise patterns of coloured light. The absurdist caveat is that this handheld, battery-operated machine has been calibrated so that the player never loses no matter the complexity of the sequence, a magic trick with disturbing undertones. (Cocteau, again, on the “impeding contrivances” of intelligence: “It brings the little toys which man invents in order to hide the void.”)

The metaphor for technology’s progressive, seductive sublimation of free will is not subtle, and the sticking point for some viewers may be that Coma’s episodic-slash-essayistic treatment of its themes—from ambient technophobia to pandemic-era authoritarianism to various hauntological phenomena—is counterintuitively lucid to the paranoid trance state Bonello seeks to generate. (Not soporific like Apichatpong or mystagogical à la Malick, Bonello is nevertheless aiming for a hypnotic mise en scène—note the black-and-white inserts of eyes, flickering.) Such chiding is, perhaps, a fairer form of criticism than the clueless or unobservant plaint that this rigorously conceived and executed feature (accurately described by Erika Balsom as a “maximalist work made under extreme constraint”) is “messy” or “doesn’t make sense”; it’s also probably preferable to the cheerier but similarly empty-calorie corollary that Coma is quote–unquote “bat-shit” or “insane.” Ultimately, it’s Bonello’s willingness to be direct, not at the expense of his experimental impulses but in league with them, that makes his film so effective—a doodle with the force of an incantation.

Like the majority of COVID productions, from Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth (2021) to Claire Denis’ Avec amour et acharnement (2022), Coma is littered with recognizable temporal signifiers that threaten to render its contents forever freeze-framed. But Bonello—whose great L’Apollonide (2011) was the rare period piece with an original and affecting relationship to time and history—is too smart and restless to settle for making a proverbial “movie of the moment,” or to be limited by his circumstances in all but the most prosaic ways. His multi-format, shape-shifting weave of static daytime interiors, mobile POV nightscapes, and authentic-looking social-media pastiche is dazzling, but never weightless—there is, always, a centre of gravity. Drill down deeper through Coma’s layered strata of Zoom calls, Instagram posts, Blumhouse homage, and wacky conceptual gags (including an entire narrative strand focused on Barbie dolls whose dialogue includes verbatim recitations, by the late Gaspard Ulliel, of Donald Trump’s greatest tweets) and the anxieties being mined about life and death—the latter, to paraphrase Cocteau, suddenly hurrying to meet us en masse—can only be classified as universal.

Back for a moment to those talking dolls, ostensibly manipulated by Labèque as a salve for her boredom (a stand-in for an auteur in lockdown?), but gradually granted their own fluid, stop-motion agency up to and including hardcore, incestuous fucking (the smoothie recipe this time out is Jimmy Kimmel, Todd Haynes, Team America: World Police [2004], and the “Rabbits” section of Inland Empire [2006]). Once again, though, Bonello’s tactics seem less about surfing the zeitgeist than acknowledging and measuring it, a certain knowing, po-mo pastiche being the coin of the realm these days. If the underlying joke in these bits was actually about Trump we’d be in Adam McKay territory, but what’s really at stake in these interludes is the voracious, pervasive slippage between virtual and IRL discourse, the realization of which drives people ever deeper into themselves and their own private, dopamine-dispensing Revelators as the ground beneath their feet keeps shifting apocalyptically.

Actually, with its closing, widescreen montage of coolly distanced, cosmically scaled eco-horrors, Coma does head into Adam McKay territory. We might say, though, that Bonello is less convinced of the efficacy of looking up than his American peer, and surely less concerned with staking his claim as any sort of cinematic Chicken Little (or getting a Netflix deal). Of all the things that stymied the well-intentioned and not altogether awful climate-change allegory of Don’t Look Up (2021), McKay’s fuming futility at trying (and failing) to speak to the mass audience he used to make guffaw at will was the most baffling. Here, narrowing his address to his next of kin and utilizing an exponentially more private narrative and symbolic syntax, Bonello simultaneously achieves the goals of a good horror filmmaker (to be scary) and a concerned parent (ditto). In a late sequence featuring crudely rotoscoped animation, Labèque sits on her bed recounting her nightmares to an older man who looks suspiciously like Bonello. “Did all that scare you?” he asks, as if acknowledging culpability in his progeny’s oneiric ordeal—and maybe her waking nightmares as well. “No, it enlightened me,” she replies, adding that the 21st century, with all its apocalyptic uncertainty, belongs to her. “You can’t steal it.”

Bonello ultimately gives himself the last word in Coma via another epistolary monologue, but it’s this exchange, shot through with equal measures of tenderness and terror, that clarifies his intention to make not only a film about horror or youth, but also about the horror of youth—of staring down a birthright that seems to be receding in the rearview mirror. The Girl says she’s going somewhere where free will exists; whether that means the future or her dreams is hard to say, but the wisdom of Bonello’s harrowing bedtime story lies in its recognition that the same sunken place that produces monsters is where responsibilities begin.

Cinema Scope: How did Coma come about? I know that you had been working on a bigger movie called The Beast.

Bertrand Bonello: Yes, The Beast is a big feature, an expensive feature, and it’s been delayed for many reasons. First of all, because of the schedule of Léa Seydoux, the main actress, and then because of the death of Gaspard Ulliel, who was the main actor. So, it was delayed for like a year, and I decided to not to waste my year and to do something different. Because I knew I was making this more expensive movie, I felt like I could do something very quickly, and in a very free way, with no money. So I wrote Coma quickly and shot it immediately after writing.

Scope: Without saying too much about The Beast right now, I wonder if it connects to the themes of youth in Nocturama and Zombi Child the way Coma does, or will it be a departure?

Bonello: The Beast is very different. When I decided to do another project during the delay, I thought that I was missing a third movie about youth, as you say, and to complete the trilogy. The prologue of Coma was originally a short film I had shot during the first lockdown. I got a lot of feedback on that film, which was around 12 minutes long, and I decided to use it as a point of entry—a way to show a young girl, and then to try to get inside her mind.

Scope: Was the idea always to create a short out of footage from Nocturama?

Bonello: During lockdown, Fondazione Prada asked a few directors the same question: how can you make movies if you can’t shoot anything anymore? We had to think about archives and found footage, so it made sense to use one of my own movies as found footage, and to write a letter to my daughter, who was turning 18. Eighteen is when you’re supposed to be entering the world, and yet everyone in the world was staying home. I wanted to think about that a little bit.

Scope: Nocturama is also a lockdown movie of a sort: once the teenagers are inside the store, they have to stay there. The outside world has become too dangerous—they’re like refugees, or prisoners.

Bonello: A journalist asked me what the difference was between the kids in Nocturama and the ones in Coma. I said, “Six years.” Six years is not a lot, but the world is changing so much that it becomes a lot. In 2016, the youth had a lot of anger, and you could imagine them just going out, breaking things, planting bombs, stuff like that. Now, they have to sit inside and have their thoughts—their dark thoughts.

Scope: Apocalyptic thoughts, because in the end Coma is an apocalyptic movie. Nocturama ends with a slaughter, but Coma is dealing with the end of the world in some ways.

Bonello: In terms of image, the ending is apocalyptic, yes. But there’s also the letter, and in that, I hope there is a kind of light.

Scope: There’s absolutely a light, because those images of climate change could, in a different context, feel like the beginning of something. If nothing else, apocalypse is about change. Your film is suffused with a sense of change, creation, and urgency. It feels very contemporary in that way.

Bonello: What I’m trying to say in that last letter—and I’m very sincere about this—is that I trust the new generation. We’re leaving them an awful world full of shit, terrorism, economic drama, ecological drama, ever since they were born. But I’m sure they will be cleverer than we were about it.

Scope: The line that moved me the most, as a parent, is where the father figure—who looks like you—is sitting on the bed with The Girl and says something like, “People will say the 21st century belonged to me,” and she replies, “No, it’s mine, you can’t have it.”

Bonello: I really like that line too. We have to not tell them what to do and how to do it, but to listen to them and give them attention.

Scope: The father also asks The Girl if the dream she’s been having—which I take to be the dream of the film—is scary or enlightening. I wonder if the two are necessarily connected. Change often comes out of being frightened.

Bonello: I think there is a sentence of Nietzsche that says, “Terror is the most beautiful part of humanity.”

Scope: I want to ask you about terror and horror movies in a moment, but the person I thought of most during Coma—even though you don’t quote him—was Jean Cocteau. He talked so much about life as a form of dreaming, and about sort of falling through various realities, which is present in the structure of the film, which just keeps plunging downward through different layers of storytelling.

Bonello: I never thought about Cocteau for this film, but I understand what you mean. I didn’t want to try to be realistic, just to offer sensations.

Scope: Those sensations are often very unnerving, and my feeling is that Coma is not just a horror movie but sort of a movie about horror movies, which reminds me of Nocturama and Zombi Child. All three films are very conversant in genre tropes, and evenfilled with specific references to certain classics.

Bonello: Horror films were the first kind of cinema that I really liked when I was a kid. I think I know them quite well, and was trying to put some of their codes in here. Usually when you see movies about teenagers, they’re stories about first love; I try to include other things, like politics, and how young people can participate in their political worlds—in 2016, 2019, and today.

Scope: The group dynamics are very important in Nocturama and Zombi Child, but they’re fractured here; the closest thing you have to an ensemble scene is when The Girl and her friends are on Zoom chat, which of course ends up being very frightening.

Bonello: Zoom is very weird because it’s like a split-screen. You’re always using Zoom for work, but you’re also seeing into people’s apartments. You can’t see what’s to the left or to the right, though—you can only guess or imagine. And then you see some- body passing behind…it’s very cinematic.

Scope: I wonder if you like Unfriended

Bonello: Yeah, I like it. And I think that if Brian De Palma was doing a film now, he would use Zoom.

Scope: This is sort of what I meant by horror-movie references: I thought of both Unfriended movies during Coma, the same way I thought about Dawn of the Dead during Nocturama, almost as a template.

Bonello: There were two main influences on Nocturama—well, maybe three, actually. They were Dawn of the Dead, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and the original Elephant (1989) by Alan Clarke. I don’t know if you’ve seen it.

Scope: It’s an incredible film. It’s great because it’s an example of how something can give no context, but also sort of be all context, in a way.

Bonello: Yes, it’s about civil war. There’s not a word spoken, by the end of the film, you understand what civil war is—it’s just crossing the street and killing someone.

Scope: Zombi Child was pretty daring in terms of taking on post-colonial themes, and in reaching back to Jacques Tourneur, who is now accused of being politically incorrect with I Walked With a Zombie (1943). That movie is almost 80 years old, and you’re playing with some of the same imagery and ideas now, which is risky.

Bonello: I enjoyed the idea of getting back to the real origins of so many zombie films—the ideas and history actually come from somewhere. I wanted to give something back to Haiti, and to deal with that aspect of their culture.

Scope: The possession scenes in Zombi Child are amazing, and that’s where I first saw Louise Labèque. She’s very memorable there as somebody who’s inhabited by something else, and here I felt like she was very consciously sort of blank and passive—that was the shape of the character.

Bonello: I think what was difficult for her in shooting Coma was that she doesn’t interact with anybody, except by FaceTime or Zoom. She’s mostly alone on her bed, and still she has to express something very precise. She’s very smart, she knows how to feel certain things, and her face is amazing.

Scope: She’s a very lonely character, which is why she’s so drawn to watching Patricia Coma’s show. But Patricia Coma is lonely, too.

Bonello: Yes, very lonely. She says it late in the film, that she does her YouTube channel because she doesn’t want to be alone, which is very normal.

Scope: And it offsets how menacing she is, because there are obviously things about Patricia Coma that are menacing or frightening—or just weird, like the scene where she puts her hand in the blender. Which is a funny moment.

Bonello: I wanted her to be funny, glum, and freaky.

Scope: There’s that scene where she’s doing the weather report—it’s quite Lynchian, being a weather report—and she says it’s 71 degrees outside, which is surreal and matter of fact at once.

Bonello: Unfortunately, what she says there indeed might be happening soon.

Scope: I wanted to ask about the Revelator, which reminds me of playing the game Simon as a kid.

Bonello: We all did! I got very obsessed with the question of free will, which is almost a philosophical question. I didn’t want to be too philosophical in the film, so I had the idea of using this stupid…well, not stupid, but this small plastic game that I bought on Amazon to open the door to these huge questions. It’s like Patricia says: “You cannot lose, and that’s the worst thing that could happen to you.”

Scope: How many of the different sources of fear in Coma belong to you, and which ones are you trying to imagine on behalf of The Girl? There are so many points of anxiety in the film, and the one that feels universal is the limbo state where The Girl finds Patricia, which is sort of like a first-person video game, just wandering around in nothingness.

Bonello: They’re my ideas, placed into the head of a teenager. But limbo…I love the word, I love the idea. It’s fascinating to me, whether it’s in literature or painting or film. It’s not hell, it’s just close to hell—it’s between things. I love the concept of being between things or states. Life and death, night and day. Hell is hell, you know. Life is life. Here you’re between the two, and anything can happen.

Scope: The scenes in limbo are scary, but there’s also this unencumbered movement—the only movement in a very static, claustrophobic movie.

Bonello: It’s just as Patricia Coma says: “Here you are free.” You’re almost dead, but you’re free, whereas in life, you’re not. You’re not free.

Scope: Freedom or transcendence in death is poetic, but it’s also potentially nihilistic, and a very different proposition for a 16-year-old than an 80-year-old. Like, I don’t worry about dying because I’m worried about myself, I worry about not being there for my daughters—or I will worry about it until they get older, I guess.

Bonello: It’s true that when my daughter turned 18 or 19, I said to myself, “Well, it’s okay if I die now.”

Scope: That tenderness comes through in the movie, and then of course some other parts are ridiculous, like the Barbie dolls. I thought about Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), but also Team America: World Police. Your movie has a similar sort of doll-sex scene.

Bonello: Tell me the title again.

Scope: Team America: World Police. Both movies express something about the freedom of just playing with dolls.

Bonello: It’s playful, and you can also put things in the mouths of those dolls that you couldn’t get away with with normal actors. Same with Patricia Coma, because of the direct address.

Scope: One doll ends up ventriloquizing Donald Trump, but I noticed that he specifically recycles the infamous tweets about Robert Pattinson dumping Kristen Stewart—more teen-horror references to Twilight (2008)!

Bonello: The crazy thing is that the tweets are real. I like the idea that the doll scenes start out like some normal soap opera and little by little they just rip into something really crazy and horrible. And what’s crazier than those tweets?

Scope: How did you direct Gaspard Ulliel to deliver those Trump tweets?

Bonello: I asked if he thought he’d enjoy doing it. I texted him, he came over, we recorded with a coffee, and that’s it. It’s how everything was done.

Scope: With all that freedom, did Coma change very much conceptually over the course of production?

Bonello: Not really. The final edit is very close to the script. For me, freedom is being able to do both kinds of movies—a $200,000 film and a $7 million film, jumping from one to the other. I would hate to do only $7 million films, but also you cannot only make films that cost $200,000, not all of them.

Scope: You sort of have it both ways in Coma, in that the bookends are shot in Scope and feel very big—especially the disaster footage at the end—and the rest is a smaller aspect ratio.

Bonello: The prologue and the epilogue being in Scope—I like using the format that way. It’s so cinematic and, at the same time, so intimate, because these scenes are letters from a father to his daughter.

Scope: I heard you said at the New York Film Festival that the visual language of the movie is actually pretty simple if you’re paying attention.

Bonello: The “real” of the film is the young girl—we’re focused on her, and it’s a square format. It’s 1.77:1 because that’s the format used in computers, and then you have Scope at the beginning and the end. The logic is very, very clear.

Scope: What’s tricky is the way you use eyeline matches and point of view. As the movie goes on it becomes far more ambiguous who is watching who, and from where.

Bonello: Yes, especially when we see Patricia in the theatre, watching the girls on their call. There are also those two voices on the video surveillance feed. Where do they come from? We don’t know. We’re changing POV all the time.

Scope: Has your daughter seen the film?

Bonello: It was a little difficult. She was shy about the letters, but she enjoyed what happened in the movie itself. She thought that it was quite pop, quite sexy, and quite free.

Scope: Did she spend a lot of time with Louise Labèque?

Bonello: Not that much, no. It’s a little weird, because there’s an actress playing my daughter in my house. They like each other, but they’re not friends. It’s separate.

Scope: As a rule, do you enjoy talking about or promoting your work?

Bonello: I think it’s important. It’s getting more difficult to get people into theatres, so you have to try to help the distributors. What’s important for me is foreign countries, because I don’t want to be dependent only on the French market. I’m lucky, my films travel a lot around the world.

Scope: Would I be wrong to guess that Saint Laurent (2014) probably travelled the widest?

Bonello: That’s correct, yeah.

Scope: At least until Blumhouse hires you to make a Paranormal Activity (2007) sequel.

Bonello: I would!