b. 11 September 1968, Nice, France

Bertrand Bonello’s movies coalesce into a saga of political disillusionments. His characters are would-be revolutionaries, doomed youths, and indecisive figures paralyzed in the face of new political futures. Grappling with his cinema requires context of his birth-year. In 1968, France was in the midst of Les Trente Glorieuses—three decades of post-WWII economic development, modernization, and mass consumerism. Despite a long revolutionary lineage, large-scale protest movements lay mostly dormant in post-war France. The French Communist party (PCF) was widely considered a fossilised antiquity. Generations of post-war babies came-of-age into a hierarchical, patriarchal society under authoritarian President Charles de Gaulle. Yet across the 1960s, France was aflame with youth culture. Vibrant counter-cultural art (e.g., French New Wave, yé-yé, nouveau realism) thrived, beckoning for a liberated modernity.

May of 1968 was a sudden rupture. Voices of an enraged proletariat and student body amplified from passive somniloquies into full revolt almost overnight. Revolts began with students (university-age and highschooler alike).1 Disparate groups united through opposition to Western imperialism in Vietnam, the repressive bureaucracy of French education systems, and global capitalism. Student protests consolidated Maoist, Trotskyists, and anarchists, rejecting the PCF and embracing contemporary international revolutionary struggles (e.g., Vietnam and Cuba). It was a movement built on the spontaneity of the masses, without unified ideology. Students occupied cultural institutions like the Théâtre de l’Odéon and the Sorbonne, chanting watchwords like “all power to the imagination!” A nationwide wildcat general strike ensued with ten million of the workforce joining students.2 Streets bloodied from brawls between protestors and police.

By June, the uprising lost momentum. Counterrevolutionary demonstrations accumulated massive turnouts and De Gaulle called an immediate election, the outcome of which tightened right-wing legislative control. There was no revolution, nor even a substantial democratisation of the country’s cultural institutions. The underpinnings of French capitalism— assailed from all fronts in an overnight shift of public consciousness—restabilized, unperturbed. In his film of the same name, Chris Marker called 1968 “a grin without a cat”—an allusion to a purely symbolic, Cheshire gesture without material form. Naturally, revolution is not isolated; it is a buildup, amalgamating political clashes. Rosa Luxemburg theorises the mass strike (writing in the aftermath of the 1905 Russian Revolution) as a spontaneous surge essential for mobilising the proletariat towards full revolution.3 A snuffed movement becomes a stepping stone, developing momentum towards the establishing of a worker’s state. Undeniably though, even fifty-five years later, a new French revolution never coagulated. 1968 sits as a dress rehearsal for a performance where the curtain never unfurled.

Backdropped by a thunderstorm of violence and revolutionary reverie, Bertrand Bonello was born in Nice six months after May of 1968. His filmography — so far, ten narrative features — holds séance with the spectres of the unrealized political unrest he was born into, chronicling a legacy of (fictional and real life, past and future) dissidence and stasis. Set during transitional historical moments, his films wrestle with the constitution of history. Some of his movies explicitly tango with the long-reaching implications of 1968. Others address its tensions — mass rebellion and deflating defeat — in a variety of milieus, ranging from a turn-of-the-century Parisian brothel to a mid-century Haitian sugar-cane plantation to a dystopian AI-run 2044. The movies are puzzleboxes: hybrids of stylish genre film pastiche and arthouse ambiguity. They’re also intimately researched, tightroping between historiography and topicality. Yet despite their eclecticism, Bonello’s movies return to the same questions. What happens to a revolution deferred? How does a radical consciousness mutate between generations? How do you imagine something after capitalism when capitalism is so ubiquitous?

Bonello was born around the French Riviera, on the southeastern coast of France. His parents—a lawyer and opera-worker—raised him in a large house, often entertaining artists. Trained as a pianist at a young age, Bonello’s first passion was music (today, he continues to score all his movies). He spent his teenage years in a rock band (The Bonellos), then relocated to Paris as a session player during an arguable nadir of French pop.4 Bonello began his second life as a filmmaker out of exhausted apathy to his music career. “I got into film, but without any intense passion. I didn’t go to the movies very often, and didn’t have any film background at all,” he remarks.5 Bonello is the inverse of the 1960s French New Wave archetype: the cinephile-turned-filmmaker who would foam at the mouth, live and die in moviehouses, dedicate body and soul to the seventh art. For Bonello, filmmaking was primarily a career switch-up.

Regardless, Bonello was hardly passionless about his new medium. He describes an internal eureka, a lightning bolt of purpose, watching Jim Jarmusch (a fellow musician-turned-filmmaker)’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984).6 In the decades since, Bonello’s self-conception became rooted in the aesthetic traditions of French cinema:

I’m going to say something a little schematic about French cinema. But if we imagine two lines, we can say there is Renoir and Bresson that gave us Truffaut and Godard, that gave us Pialat and Eustache, that gave us Desplechin and Carax. I fall more on the Bresson/Godard/Eustache/Carax side than the other one. But it’s complicated to find your place, and to find how to change things, because our “fathers” changed things, and not just politically but also in terms of cinema. For our generation in France[,] it was not easy to find our place.7

French Cinema Tree

A legacy of aesthetic forefathers. Unsurprisingly, Bonello — a filmmaker obsessed with historical lineages and chains of causality that spiral across time — situates himself within a (self-acknowledgingly reductive) framework of French cinema’s evolution. Bonello sees his art in a tradition that sprouts from Bresson’s aesthetic minimalism into a legacy of artifice and abstraction (the opposing branch, alternatively, is anchored in the filmmakers’ distinct approaches to realism and dramatic humanism). This aesthetic imprint only becomes more apparent in Bonello’s later movies. As he ages, his approach becomes more audacious, more formally unstable, more attuned to the destabilising chaos of late-capitalism.

Beginnings, New French Extremity, and Transitional Eras

Something Organic (1998), Bonello’s first feature, is his only Canadian production. The movie tracks a disintegrating relationship, where the unspoken harnesses more dramatic heft than any on-screen action. The film begins in intimate close-up: a man and a woman grin face-to-face and kiss against a stark turquoise backdrop. Cut to: a handheld two-shot, her corpse sprawled across a bed, blood-splatter on the wall. He sits in an armchair, revolver-in-hand, eyeing the camera. These opening tableaux, jumping between wide-eyed romance and violent fallout, form a prologue/epilogue to bookend the rest of the film’s narrative. Conventional plotting would suggest the bulk of the movie is a filling-in-the-gaps: an explanation of how rapturous romance turns murderous. Yet Bonello omits any other explicit reference to uxoricide. The second image becomes a cartographic legend, imbuing every interaction as a premonition of a coming violence. This structural tweak necessitates a scrutinising spectatorship, searching for hints of violence in ostensibly non-violent images. In Something Organic, like many future Bonello films, causality is abstracted. Intentions flutter unknowably. Translating interiority becomes the responsibility of sound and image.

Something Organic

Whereas later Bonello is concerned with civilizations in flux and periods of upheaval, Something Organic’s thematic fixations are confined to the purview of domestic drama. Nonetheless, Bonello’s form is instantly recognizable. Soundtrack (which varies from jazz-infused techno needledrops to Will Oldham tracks) gestures at emotional dimensions the characters themselves never betray. Music becomes the main site of simmering violence, manifesting through brooding cellos which underscore moments of supposed stasis. Something Organic begins a career-long exploration of suffocating, otherworldly interior spaces. The domestic chambers which backdrop the movie appear paradoxically quotidian and otherworldly: unremarkably set-dressed, yet always strangely dim, with walls painted stark blueish-green hues. Apartment walls become partitions.

One of many outcomes of 1968’s mass strike was a shutdown of cinemas, including a cancellation of the Cannes Film Festival. Since few other films screened, Jean Rollin’s Le Viol du Vampire (The Rape of the Vampire, 1968) slingshotted into unlikely French box office success.8 Rollin is a microcosm for the intersection of art and commerce, prestige and vulgarity. His filmography divides between philosophical, lesbian-vampire fantastique cinema and hardcore porn (the latter contracted to produce the former). His own ambitions veered towards the philosophical, the elemental; he collaborated with Marguerite Duras, evoked Beckett with La Rose de Fer (The Iron Rose, Jean Rollin 1973) and Proust with Lèvres de Sang (Lips of Blood, Jean Rollin 1975). Yet market demands limited his expression and syphoned him into crasser forms; Rollin the philosopher became reliant on Rollin the pornographer.

Rollin parallels Jacques Laurent, the ex-radical turned hardcore auteur (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) of Bonello’s Le Pornographe (The Pornographer, 2001), his first feature in France. The movie opens with a Pasolini quote: “History is about sons trying to understand the father.” Bonello dramatises (and literalizes) this aphorism of intergenerational political divide as a father-son melodrama. The movie follows Jacques’ debt-induced return to the porn industry. Once an optimist of May 1968, Jacques embraced porn as a vehicle for sexual liberation: a new, utopian form promising to disrupt repressive mores. In his imagination, porn held an iconoclastic power towards revolution; it was politics. Yet in the 1970s, porn became corporatized, reterritorialized, and assimilated into capital. Any radical potential evaporated.

Today, Jacques still fantasises about his unrealized opus: an arthouse-porno blend which, as Richard Brody notes, is derivative of La règle du jeu (Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir 1939).9 Yet like with Rollin, the market proves unconducive to artistic impulses. The Pornographer dialogues with legacies of French cinema, adapting La Nuit américaine (Day For Night, François Truffaut, 1973)’s metatextual film production structure to the milieu of new-millennium blue movies. Even the movie’s most prominent visage is Léaud: the boyish face of French New Wave, now withered.

Meanwhile, Jacques’ estranged son (Jérémie Renier) wanders the same alleys of self-discovery Jacques once haunted. He dreams of revolution yet bickers with his comrades about means of protest. Father and son recognize their shared quandary, searching for their roles in a rapidly changing culture. As Bonello explained, “when I was writing the film, of course I am the ‘son.’ I am the son who asks his father, ‘Okay, now you’ve done everything. What is left for us?’ And I was talking politically and I was talking in terms of cinema: What do you do with your fathers?’”10 The Pornographer is an epilogue, a long sigh at the end of an era. Many of Bonello’s films occupy transitional moments when old structures fade and new ones emerge. Jacques prepares for the end of his life while his son prepares for the beginning of his. Bonello asserts a dependency between generations, where young leftist of the early-00s are beholden to rhetoric of 1968. This proved prescient; in 2006, French youths protested a new labour bill, skirmished with police, repeated 1968 slogans and iconography, and demonstrated at the Sorbonne. The Pornographer asks the question: is the modern left’s indebtedness to 1968 an extension of that revolutionary fervour or a cyclical repetition, a submission to the past?

Eleven seconds of sexually explicit material were trimmed from The Pornographer’s home release (with the uncut version available in licensed sex shops).11 From this controversy onwards, Bonello became associated with France’s New Extremity (NE) movement. These movies included works by arthouse provocateurs (e.g. Gaspar Noé and Catherine Breillat) alongside ultraviolent genre films. Bonello’s link to NE is dubious. Violence is sparse in his films and always a brief, destabilising eruption: never rabble-rousing shock.

This is the case with Tiresia (Bertrand Bonello, 2003), Bonello’s third and most opaque film. The narrative is two halves. In the first, a Frenchman (Laurent Lucas) abducts Tiresia (Clara Choveaux), a trans, Brazilian sex worker. Bonello repurposes John Fowles’ The Collector (1963), reimagining the captor’s fetishism as a fixation on his prisoner’s transness. Yet with her hormone injections withheld, Tiresia’s body reconfigures to the Frenchman’s disgust. He blinds her with scissors and abandons her in the woods. This is the movie’s only moment of violent extremity. It registers like a tornado. Bonello holds in close-up on Tiresia’s face, blood pooling from her eyes as she howls, locked in the trunk of a car. Afterwards, Tiresia—now perceived as male (and played by Thiago Telès)—is discovered by a Christian family and adopted into their pastoral household. The pious locals become convinced Tiresia wields oracular abilities, which havocs a local priest (also played by Laurent Lucas), fearful his role as spiritual lynchpin will face obsolescence.

Tiresia’s form shifts drastically. In the first section, the camera embodies a predatorial subjectivity, tracking across streets of sex workers. It scrutinises their bodies. Like with Philippe Grandrieux’ NE nightmare Sombre (1998), spectators must inhabit a dehumanising gaze. The subjectivity is oppressive; even scenes of Tiresia’s erotic memories are revealed as imaginings of her jailer. Bonello’s nocturnal mise-en-scène is gloomy, layered thick with obfuscating shadows. Tiresia recalls the murky-to-the-point-of-abstraction compositions of Nuit du carrefour (Night at the Crossroads, Jean Renoir, 1932): films where the unseen contains vast, mysterious worlds. In the second half, Bonello decelerates to a mellower pace, ditching chirascuro for compositions bathed in sun. He even channels Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, Robert Bresson, 1951), where a clergyman’s matter-of-fact voiceover hovers over shots of stasis in a minimalist chamber.

Bonello’s dual-casting of Lucas draws revealing parallels. Abductor and priest alike represent the flailing insecurities of an established custom (gender binary, the clergy) when threatened with the Other’s perceived futurity. Of course, trans-ness and secular oracles are not 21st century inventions. This is an adaptation of ancient myth; Tiresias was the blinded, gender-fluid prophet of Greek legend: a similar inspiration for Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928). Bonello focuses on the crumbling psychologies of gendered and religious orders. The movie opens with redish-orange-tinted footage of magma bubbling, set to Beethoven’s 7th: a grandiose statement, adjacent to the film’s otherwise stripped-back aesthetics. These first moments suggest a coming eruption, a reconfiguration of a landscape. Magma boils up, overflows. Tiresia belongs to a tectonic shift. The old world cannot stay congealed. Bonello’s cinema often registers as defeatist, focused foremost on the melancholy of squashed ideals. Tiresia’s volcanic images remain an altar of hope in his filmography.


Hope is already deflated by Bonello’s next feature De la guerre (On War, 2008). Though devoid of explicit references to revolution/revolutionary history, the movie explores how social discontent is co-opted and channelled into a fad of self-actualization. In a jab of sly self-reflexivity, Mathieu Amalric (who even resembles Bonello) plays a filmmaker named Bertrand with a Tiresia poster on his wall. His world is plagued by middle-aged malaise. He is surrounded by numbing and omnipresent stimulation: the cacophonous thud-and-tumble of a choir of laundromat washer-dryers, the constant woosh of motor traffic. Even at home, he takes phone calls in a living room aglow with a televised broadcast of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999): a movie about all-consuming, Baudrillard-type simulations. Overwhelmed with possibilities, Bertrand cannot decide how to live and succumbs to listlessness.

Preparing for a shoot one night, Bertrand trips with slapstick grace and gets enclosed in a coffin. He is rescued in the morning, but everything has changed. Claustrophobic, restricted space is a staple of Bonello’s films. In On War, closed-off space spawns a revelation. The coffin’s deprivation is intoxicating. In an age of hyper-stimulation, nothing is more appealing than a brief moment of self-negation, a brush with the neutrality of death.

Afterwards, Bertrand spirals in pursuit of intensities and limit-experiences to erode the accrued emptiness of his day-to-day. “I’d like to be dazed by life,” he longs. His awakening leads him to a (monetized) new-age cult-bootcamp modelled on military training. He submits to their repertoire of meditation exercises, fasting, vows of silence, animal mask frolicking, erotic prose, and trench warfare. Eventually, the film spins into a parody of Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), Bertrand deluded into thinking he is on a mission to execute Col. Kurtz. Bonello’s form evokes the transcendental, aligning with his characters’ subjectivities. During a forest rave, Bonello pans patiently across the trance-induced cultists’ swaying bodies, tribal house music pulsating. Time passes indiscernible, hypnotised. Despite On War’s satire of new-age cultism, Bonello does not invalidate the characters’ affective experiences. His form elucidates the allure of transcendence.

Yet in On War, even the desire for self-negation — to imagine life outside of capitalism — gets commodified and reproduces the structures of capitalism. Bertrand’s world is haunted by late-capitalist ennui. Everything is robbed of affect, performed in obligation around ritualised habits of production and consumption. Bertrand’s disheartenment stems from the same factors which, in other contexts, produce political uprising. Yet On War suggests outlets for political unrest are different in the late-00s than 1968. The ostensible solution is a pseudo-spiritual exodus: expenditure in service of the individual rather than the collective. The spirit of rebellion has not died; it just gets funnelled towards an amorphous idea of escape.

Escape fantasies also form the unspoken backbone of L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close (House of Tolerance, Bertrand Bonello, 2011). Unlike On War, closed-off space does not instigate a breakthrough but, instead, perpetuates continuous agony. The movie unfolds in a turn-of-the-century luxury Parisian brothel called L’Apollonide (also the name of Bonello’s childhood home).12 There is no world outside House of Tolerance’s windowless interiors; Daniel Kasman likened it to a submarine movie.13 The titular house is extravagant and frequented by wealthy men. Sprawling hallways lead to ornate chambers bathed in candlelight. A panther catnaps on a divan. Yet illusions of leisure mask a carceral truth: none of the women can leave. They will die in this house.

Bonello’s artistic process begins by compiling a series of discordant images and composing/selecting corresponding sounds.14 Narrative, character and theme become ladders between disharmonious audio and visuals: connective tissue to render disparate parts whole. House of Tolerance is an eclectic, anachronistic film. Bonello injects period piece formality with soul music needledrops, Moody Blues dance numbers, surrealism, horror pastiche, and split-screen compositions. Simultaneously, House of Tolerance is moulded from a breadth of research, enmeshing historical accounts with literary inspiration (e.g. Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs).

Despite high-society illusions, the “pleasure industry” reduces the women to an apparatus for clients’ eccentric fetishes (e.g., fucking in a bathtub of champagne, living dolls). Though House of Tolerance is a film about a brothel, there is almost no visualised sex. Bonello understands sex work primarily as exploited labour rather than erotic fixation (e.g. the conceit of Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967)). The so-called “flesh trade” is a particular form of labour where the body itself becomes commodity, subject to the whims of clientele. Biology reconfigures; by the end, one of the women’s tear ducts can only weep semen.

House of Tolerance opens in 1900, “the dawn of the twentieth century.” An era is ending. The culture of high-end Parisian brothels will fizzle out in coming years. Everything is in decay; the women’s bodies become plagued with syphilis and opium addiction. Because there is no escaping L’Apollonide, they have no future. In its coda, House of Tolerance jumps to the present day, streets overrun with cars instead of carriages. In the movie’s only glimpse of an exterior world, Bonello films sex workers on the curbside, their business now relocated to the streets. 110 years elapsed but the fundamental exploitation of sex workers remains unchanged, just shifted to a new locale (now without shelter). Social progress — the re-legislation of prostitution laws — fails to assist the lives of sex workers. The promise of change remains unfulfilled, suffering continues cyclically.

If House of Tolerance depicts the victims of commodified hedonism, Saint Laurent (Bertrand Bonello, 2015) is about the hedonist at the core of a cultural industry. When the Altmayer brothers producing-duo approached Bonello about making a YSL movie, he refused. Creative freedom in a biopic about one of the 20th century’s defining fashion moguls seemed unattainable. Yet with approval from YSL’s current owners, Bonello was granted autonomy.15 Though Saint Laurent is a “true story,” its style is quintessential Bonello: montage, collage aesthetics, surrealism, eclectic soundtracking. Bonello avoids a comprehensive, Wikipedian summation of Saint Laurent’s life. Instead, he excises any detail he does not resonate with, creating a subjective portrait.

Saint Laurent is another end-of-an-era Bonello film. Here, the movie captures the last hurrah of 1970s Parisian discotheque decadence: days of indulgence and freedom, champagne and pills. The orgiastic environment is a refuge for Saint Laurent, a man who finds open expression for his queerness in a plastic world of gaudy artifice. The film is deeply sensual, eroticizing the vibrant, haute couture mise-en-scène. Even inanimate signifiers of time and place become sexualized. In the midst of the cacophony is Saint Laurent’s search for solace, beyond the alienation of his celebrity. The film offers a plain explanation of how 1968 radicalism mutated and absorbed into capital. Search for liberation becomes an individualised quest via maximum stimulation.

The Youth Trilogy

Bonello’s Youth Trilogy (2016-2022) encompasses three movies: Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello, 2016), Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello, 2019), and Coma (Bertrand Bonello, 2022). Each revolves around young people forced to reconcile with/change age-old systems they are unwittingly born into. Released on the heels of real-life terrorist attacks in Paris, Nocturama follows a group of Parisian youths who orchestrate demolitions of government infrastructure and assassinate a tycoon of French finance capitalism. Then, they take overnight refuge in a shopping mall. Nocturama is a narrative of waiting, suspended in anxious shopping spree leisure, anticipating an inevitable downfall. When the conclusion arrives via a faceless, silhouetted SWAT team, bullets rain indiscriminately. The film builds from familiar genre touches: the swirling synths and ensembles of John Carpenter, the shopping mall apocalypticism of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). Bonello’s editing — more calculated than ever — disrupts the pastiche, deconstructing thriller conventions. Every cut is disruptive. A pivotal moment initiating the climax — a gunshot — is told and retold from several different perspectives, cycling through a temporal loop and protracting a moment of tension. Nocturama offers no catharsis. When action finally erupts, violence is cold and indifferent. Then the movie ends.

In Zombi Child, two parallel narratives converge. One recounts the story of Clairvius Narcisse: the dead Haitian man resurrected into zombified slavery on a sugar-cane plantation in 1962. Like On War, the narrative’s inciting incident is a body’s removal from a coffin. The other half is a coming-of-age drama set in a present-day, all-girls boarding school for descendants of Legion of Honour recipients. Here, Bonello follows the burgeoning friendship between Fanny, a white student, and Melissa, a Black orphan, immigrating after the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Fanny fixates on her friend’s voodoo heritage, seeing it as a remedy for her own pulverising heartbreak. In a final act horror turn, a voodoo session goes awry, and Baron Samedi — the master of the dead in Haitian voodoo — possesses Fanny. Zombi Child explores the dynamic between colonizers and the colonized, backdropped by an elite educational institution that sanitises colonial histories, forwarding myths of colour-blind allegiance. While Nocturama follows a failed attempt to (literally) explode the frontier of French capitalism, Zombi Child is about a failure of reconciliation. Haiti is a country ravaged by a history of the French-run slavetrade and then unpayable, economy-devastating debt to buy back independence. Peaceful coexistence between colonizers and colonized subjects proves impossible when centuries of violence lie unreconciled.

With Coma, Bonello pivots to an elastic, hybrid form. He cites Lynch and Godard as major influences on his filmmaking, less for their individual styles and more for what they “allowed us: to search for freedom.”16 With Coma (and La Bête (The Beast, Bertrand Bonello, 2023) after it), Bonello indulges a newfound creative liberty, untethering further from narrative/stylistic unity and deep-diving into a hodgepodge of creative possibilities. Reductively: Coma is about a teenage girl in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic. Restricted from the outside world, she draws inwards, towards fantasy. In a non-narrative, episodic structure, Coma links soap opera dramas enacted with dolls, rotoscope animation, surveillance footage, a Deleuze interview cropped around his untrimmed fingernails, long-take POV nightmares wandering through The Free Zone: a spatially disunified abyss of shadowy roaming figures and distant screeches, and Zoom calls. Patricia Coma — a menacing Youtube superstar — watches over the world as a panopticon warden. Like The Pornographer, Coma questions what space youths can occupy freely in a world turning gradually insular and less inhabitable.

The Youth Trilogy probes what potential futures (if any) young people are permitted to imagine. Nocturama distils the fulcrum of Bonello’s work: the revolution, betrayed. In a feature-length exemplar of capitalist realism, the film suggests the seeds of late-capitalism are sewn hopelessly into even the most radical dissidents; it recalls what Godard called “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola.” Exploring the mall, characters notice their own outfits on display in shop windows. Mass culture proves inescapable. Despite their act of defiance, the characters remain branded by the system they battle. Continuing Saint Laurent’s sensual, object-oriented cinema, the products of capitalism are eroticized. Mall paraphilia is eye-candy: the latest garb, the trendiest gizmos. The mall is adorned with rows of crimson mannequins à la Mario Bava. In a blunt Eden metaphor, one character is drawn towards a colossal, glittering ceramic apple. Radical politics exist hand-in-hand with pop culture; Nocturama’s terrorists are avid fans of Willow Smith and Chief Keef. Bonello (not-so-subtly) juxtaposes the infectious hook of “Whip My Hair” over images of a smouldering, gilded Joan of Arc statue (a target from their attack). Bonello’s thesis is a reiteration of Adorno and Horkheimer’s culture industry, where mass production creates a culture of distraction and complacency, defanging the possibility of insurrection. Solidarity is consumed by temptations of consumerist hubris.


The mass-execution ending of Nocturama is repurposed in Coma’s opening, cropped into an indiscernible haze of pixels. Self-referentiality is common in Bonello’s films (e.g., the Tiresia poster on Bertrand’s wall in On War, a brief flash of a laptop background from Bonello’s short Cindy: the Doll is Mine (2005) in The Beast). Usually, Bonello cites copyright clearance as the reason for recycling his own work.17 However, the use of Nocturama is more than set-dressing; it seeks to find Bonello’s own role in the apocalyptic tragedy of modern youth. In Coma’s opening, subtitles deliver an unspoken monologue: a letter to Bonello’s eighteen-year-old daughter, reflecting on a year of COVID quarantining. The self-reflexive use of Nocturama (teenagers massacred by cops) implies a bleak reality for a new generation, that any resistance will be thwarted. In Coma’s conclusion, Bonello’s text-monologue returns, this time over footage of climate disaster. In an era of exponentially increasing natural disaster and looming climate catastrophe, is there a future for youth? Bonello’s text promises his daughter there is. A new sun will rise; tomorrow will be different. Hope feels inorganic against the movie’s bombardment of nightmare imagery. This promise is a departure from Bonello’s signature pessimism. His words are even accompanied by images of lava erupting: the same iconography that underscored Tiresia‘s uncharacteristically hopeful prologue.

Coma includes several Barbie doll vignettes, plastic bodies enmeshed in adult worlds of sex and politics. The doll is a central motif in his movies, first explored in Cindy: The Dolls Is Mine: a short film where Asia Argento plays both American photographer Cindy Sherman and her model. In an apartment scattered with wax and porcelain dolls, the model stands wigged and made-up like a Barbie. Bonello cultivates an anaemic atmosphere of long silences dressed in bellowing room tone. In the midst of the shoot, the photographer decides she wants mascara-streaked eyes. The two women must collaborate to procure tears. Cindy demonstrates a bond between photographer and subject, focused on the tingling anxieties of becoming malleable. At first, the politics of being a photographer’s plaything seem sadomasochistic: a submission to another’s will. Yet Cindy shows reciprocity between the artist and her model; at the end both shed tears, wound together in a symbiotic act of creation: an identical ending to Catherine Breillat’s filmmaking parable Sex Is Comedy (2002). In Bonello’s later movies, however, the doll is an erosion of agency. For instance, in House of Tolerance, a sex worker performs as a human doll to pacify a client’s wishes. The doll is an uncanny imagining of the human, frozen in time. The body is fixed, so is the expression. Dolls offer a human stand-in stripped of agency: a dartboard for any erotic whim.

Masks perform a similar function in Bonello’s work. They first appear in On War during a burst of animal-masked, bestial revelry. The climax of House of Tolerance is a mansion-wide masquerade-orgy, sex workers and clients alike veiled in an eclectic assortment of masks. Masked, the women — faceless mounds of flesh in the eyes of their callers —  only see their anonymity and disposability accentuated. In an iconic image from Nocturama, a teen explores the shopping mall and stumbles on a golden, full-face mask. Wearing it, the mask erases any vestige of humanity in his face; he is neutralised. After Cindy, Bonello’s dolls and masks become sterilising assets, reducing human agency to inanimate objects in the game of capital.


Like House of Tolerance, the Youth Trilogy continues Bonello’s fixation on closed-off, striated space. Nocturama’s shopping mall is a windowless (like Tolerance) capitalist microcosm, where TV is the sole outlet to an external world. In Zombi Child, girls are confined to the premises of a boarding school, repressed with administrative surveillance. The girls rebel, sneak into cellars to form secret societies and perform rituals, including rapping to Damso’s “N. J Respect R.” In Coma, the world is divided into Zoom space or secluded bedrooms; characters must imagine fantasy realms as social outlets. In each movie from this trilogy, teenagers are thrust into alienated spaces, separated from external reality. Bonello’s spatial metaphor captures a predicament of youth: a hopeless feeling, watching the world incinerate around you while handcuffed.

The Beast

Henry James’ The Beast in the Jungle is a novella about self-cannibalising anxiety. Its protagonist lives a whole life petrified by an ambient fear of amorphous disaster (metaphorized by the titular beast) brewing on the horizon. He rejects love and commits to nothing, fearful catastrophe will ruin everything. In old age, he realises the nature of his beast: a life lived without love or purpose. His cowardice concretizes his very fear and becomes his own condemnation.

Bonello’s The Beast is a loose adaptation of James’ text, a springboard towards a post-modern hybrid of melodrama, dystopian sci-fi, and slasher-isms. The movie begins in 2044, across a depopulated, brutalist landscape administered by a technofascist AI overseer. Emotion is obsolete, outfashioned by data-based pragmatism. Submitting to the times, Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) undergoes an operation to purge her emotions in a process that resurrects visions from her past lives as a high-society 1900s pianist and 2010s L.A. model. Bonello conceives personal narrative as something unbound by birth and death: a driving force battering across history. Gabrielle’s lives are a summative saga of unactualized desires, love deferred indefinitely, into a future that renders all feelings — love or otherwise — impossible. The Beast is a film about petrification, choosing stasis over action in the face of existential crossroads.

The Beast’s portrait of 2044 is a wasteland, a time after culture. Forlorn nightclubs blast throwback tunes — 1960s, 1980s —, nostalgic séances summoning old art into a sterile present. Art is a memory: something archaic in a post-emotion society. Bonello evokes Mark Fisher’s idea of the slow cancellation of the future. All future culture becomes erased. There are only lingering spectres of the past, foreclosing cultural development and marooning society in an endless loop going nowhere. The future evaporates alongside “the capacity to conceive of a world radically different from the one in which we currently live. It mean[s] the acceptance of a situation in which culture would continue without really changing, and where politics was reduced to the administration of an already established (capitalist) system.”18 Because there is no future, anything after capitalism becomes inconceivable.

Bonello’s work bristles with hauntological loops. His films fixate on pastiche, observing how genre propels culture, and deconstructing conventions as Trojan horses of ideology. Bonello’s filmography follows the birth of the 20th century onwards. His ten movies create a tapestry of modernity, probing different means of preparing for the future. For his characters, praxis is usually a mischanneling of energies into escape. Like Gabriella’s thwarted romances or Jacques Laurent’s submergence into pornography, revolution is always zig-zagged around. Even when Bonello’s characters organise and try to enact revolution (e.g. Nocturama), they are swiftly squashed by the state. Politics seem fixed, as if inscribed in prophecy.

What is the value of a filmography as consistently defeatist as Bonello’s? Is his inability to imagine a revolutionary future — an overthrow of capitalism — reactionary and anti-revolutionary? Is part of the reason why capitalism seems so ubiquitous because filmmakers like Bonello portray doomed, capitalist realism incarnations of political life? Decades ago, German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder defended his own right to dwell on failure:

People often criticize my films for being pessimistic; there are certainly many reasons for being pessimistic but I don’t see my films that way. They’re founded in the belief that revolution doesn’t belong on the cinema screen but outside in the world. Never mind if a film ends pessimistically but exposes certain mechanisms clearly enough to show people how they work and […] realize the necessity of changing their own reality.19

A social melodramatist, Fassbinder situates filmmaking as a diagnosis of ailments which plague the social organism. It is not manifesto, remedy, nor utopian vision. To dwell on loss — ravages and deaths at the hands of a political order — is a means of rallying spectators. Cinema becomes a tool of politicised manipulation, illuminating violence and igniting wrath. Fassbinder’s methodology is too didactic to encompass Bonello’s cryptic modes of storytelling. Nonetheless, Fassbinder’s reframing of defeat is crucial. Bonello’s characters (failed or would-be revolutionaries, discontents buckling under hopeless disillusionment) are embodiments of social panic. Bonello described his signature closed-off spaces “like movie theaters. When you come into a movie theater, there’s no windows — no relationship with the exterior, with the outside — and you’re ready to receive a film or fantasies or ideas.”20 The realm of his characters’ containment is not an adjacent universe but, rather, one meant to parallel the experience of spectatorship. Mutual containment creates an identification without distraction. We are forced to be moved by the hopelessness on-screen, forced to imagine a way out. In Bonello’s films, defeats are not declarations of political impossibility but, rather, reflections of a sadistic order, and acknowledgement of direness. Witnessing defeat becomes a call-to-action.


  1. Abidor, Mitchell, translator. “The Night of the Barricades,” La Monde, 12-13 May, 1968. https://www.marxists.org/history/france/may-1968/night-barricades.htm
  2. Reed, Ernest. “May 1968: Workers and students together,” International Socialist Review, Issue #111.
  3. Luxemburg, Rosa. The mass strike. (London: Bookmarks Publications, 2005), p. 20-21.
  4. “Bertrand Bonello On Cinema,” Crash, https://www.crash.fr/bertrand-bonello-interview/
  5. ibid.
  6. Weston, Hillary. “Behind Closed Doors: A Conversation with Bertrand Bonello,” The Criterion Collection,  11 August 2017, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/4816-behind-closed-doors-a-conversation-with-bertrand-bonello
  7. McElhaney, Joe and David A. Gerstner. “Zombi Child and the Spaces of Cinema: An Interview with Bertrand Bonello,” Cineaste, Vol. 45, No. 2, 2019.
  8. Gouyette, Daniel. Fragments of Pavements Under the Sand, Kino Lorber, 2014.
  9. Brody, Richard. “The Pornographer,” The New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/goings-on-about-town/movies/the-pornographer
  10. McElhaney, Joe and David A. Gerstner. “Zombi Child and the Spaces of Cinema: An Interview with Bertrand Bonello,” Cineaste, Vol. 45, No. 2, 2019.
  11. “The Pornographer forced into double UK video release,” Screen Daily, 17 September, 2002, https://www.screendaily.com/the-pornographer-forced-into-double-uk-video-release/4010513.article
  12. “Bertrand Bonello On Cinema,” Crash, https://www.crash.fr/bertrand-bonello-interview/
  13. Kasman, Daniel. “Review: Bertrand Bonello’s “L’apollonide (Souvenirs de la maison close)” a.k.a. ‘House of Pleasures’,” Mubi Notebook, 30 Nov, 2011, https://mubi.com/en/notebook/posts/notebook-reviews-bertrand-bonellos-lapollonide-souvenirs-de-la-maison-close-aka-house-of-pleasures.
  14. Akler-Bishop, Ryan. “Interview: Bertrand Bonello,” Our Culture, October 16, 2023, https://ourculturemag.com/2023/10/16/interviewbertrand-bonello/
  15. “Bertrand Bonello On Cinema,” Crash, https://www.crash.fr/bertrand-bonello-interview/
  16. Akler-Bishop, Ryan. “Interview: Bertrand Bonello,” Our Culture, October 16, 2023, https://ourculturemag.com/2023/10/16/interviewbertrand-bonello/
  17. ibid.
  18. Fisher, Mark. “What Is Hauntology?” Film Quarterly, vol. 66, no. 1, Fall 2012, pp. 16–24.
  19. Lang, Robert. American Film Melodrama: Griffith, Vidor, Minnelli. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 30.
  20. Newman, Nick. “Bertrand Bonello Talks ‘On War,’ Mathieu Amalric, and Making a Film About Terrorism In Paris,” The Film Stage, December 3, 2015, https://thefilmstage.com/bertrand-bonello-talks-on-war-mathieu-amalric-and-making-a-film-about-terrorism-in-paris/

About The Author

Ryan Akler-Bishop is a Montreal-based filmmaker, musician, film critic, and sericulturist. He is currently producing a drone album about the life of French digestion artist Monsieur Mangetout.

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