Few things will have you longing for an end to the pandemic like “Coma,” an experimental lockdown project from French provocateur Bertrand Bonello. If you’re the type to dread being alone with your thoughts, try being locked in a room with Bonello’s: The “Nocturama” director’s ruminations on free will, dreams and the deeper meaning of Michael Jackson’s music will have you longing to fall into a deep sleep, just so you don’t have to listen to it anymore. A project this insular and meandering might have been excusable in the early days of quarantine, but two years’ worth of exemplary work produced during the pandemic make the navel-gazing on display here all the more questionable.
At times “Coma” is closer to an essay film than it is to anything resembling a narrative — down to a narrated letter from Bonello that both opens and closes proceedings — and may well have been more accomplished had it fully committed to that approach. What we have instead is a jumbled mess. In one corner, Barbie- and Ken-like dolls act out soap-opera theatrics accompanied by an occasional laugh track, bringing to mind David Lynch’s vastly superior “Rabbits.” In the other, a lifestyle YouTuber named Patricia Coma (Julia Faure) both watches and is watched by our wayward, unnamed heroine (Louise Babeque, the filmmaker’s daughter).
That same young woman has first-person dream sequences in a purgatorial forest where she encounters departed souls. These limbo-like scenes are by far the film’s most involving, though they mostly serve to remind us that imitating Lynch only proves how inimitable he is. There really isn’t much else to it: “Coma” takes place either in the young girl’s bedroom or in her head, and occasionally both at once.
The late Gaspard Ulliel is one of several major French stars voicing the dolls’ dialogue, though the most striking presence here is Faure, bringing a casual unreality to her role as a vlogger who gradually becomes a kind of parallel protagonist. Our actual heroine, meanwhile, is a cipher — a canvas onto which Bonello projects his dorm-room thoughts about consciousness and memory, while expecting us to do the same. The interplay between her and Patricia comes close to a surreal personality meld at times, especially when she buys the Revelator: a mnemonic toy that looks like an illuminated Rubik’s cube but functions more like a Simon Says, with four color-coded squares lighting up in different sequences before challenging the player to repeat the same sequence. It’s quite an overt metaphor, but at least it involves physical action instead of just on-the-nose narration.
Considering Bonello’s ample gifts — his 2016 film “Nocturama,” was a searing and highly controversial look at terrorism in his home country — and the fact that “Coma” clocks in at a mercifully brief 80 minutes, it’s hard not to dismiss it as a tossed-together quarantine project that isn’t representative of what its writer-director can do when he isn’t feeling so constrained. (He was said to be working on a more conventional-sounding feature, “The Beast,” with Léa Seydoux and Ulliel, until the latter’s untimely passing.)
As difficult as it can be to tell what’s real and what’s not here, it’s even more difficult to care: “Coma” seems to have poured out of Bonello stream-of-consciousness style, and analyzing it is about as rewarding as trying to make sense of the half-remembered dream your friend won’t stop talking about. The words “covid” and “pandemic” are never spoken aloud here, but to say they loom large would be an understatement — “Coma” quite literally wouldn’t exist under different circumstances. That’s just one more reason to wish none of this had ever happened.