Thursday, December 23, 2010

SOMEWHERE - I got you under my skin

I thought I was going to hate SOMEWHERE. In fact, I almost wanted to hate it. I had even crafted the first line of this review. "It must be possible to create a movie about boredom and alienation that is not itself boring and alienating." And as the curtain lifted on Sofia Coppola's latest movie, I thought I was going to have to walk out. For here we had a guy driving round a dirt track in a Ferrari - driving fast, going nowhere, static framing, not even choosing to show the whole circuit in the frame - and I thought "Oh god, this is some pretty heavy-handed metaphor we're trading in here." The credits came up and we switched to an interior scene at the infamous Hollywood hotel, the Ch√Ęteau Marmont. Stephen Dorff is Johnny Marco - Hollywood star and good-time boy - so drunk he falls over and injures his wrist - recuperating in his bedroom with two blonde twins pole dancing for him in a manner so unerotic as to be ridiculous. I thought - here we go: poor little rich movie star, all alone in the Chateau Marmont, bored, alienated, self-hating, blah blah blah.

Having watched the entire movie, I can't disagree with its critics. This is yet another Sofia Coppola movie in which we see static framed, dialogue-free shots of beautiful people hating their beautiful lives. There is a deep-set narcissism here - both in terms of the narcissism of the characters and Coppola's assumption that we, The Ordinaries, give a rat's ass. There's also something rather snide in her treatment of the people who enable the Stars. Public relations people, agents, producers and TV stars are all depicted as basically sycophantic, fake morons. Even worse than that, SOMEWHERE could be seen as a deeply misogynistic film. Every woman Johnny meets throws herself at him, and even when they hate him (nasty text messages, "what the fuck?" meetings in hotel lobbies) they still respond to his summons. Even his 11 year old daughter Cleo, brilliantly portrayed by Elle Fanning, loves him, mothers him, raises an eyebrow but not a fuss when his one-night stand shows up at breakfast. She'll still love him even after he off-loads her at camp.

This movie has technical faults too. No film-maker should dare to quote from Fellini's masterpiece of ennui, LA DOLCE VITA unless they are willing to make the stakes as high (death, suicide, alcoholism) as Fellini did. But Coppola does it twice - first in a press conference where the questions are asinine, second in a pivotal scene near the end where Johnny's confession to Cleo is drowned out by the sound of a helicopter. Worst of all, I think the movie is simply ten minutes too long. I bought into all of it except the final character development. Without spoiling the ending, is it really credible that we should see such action from a person who has up until now been entirely passive?

Still, for all its narcissism and misogyny, SOMEWHERE really did get under my skin. Why? Because I genuinely enjoyed watching the relationship between Johnny and Cleo and Johnny's best friend Sam (Chris Pontius). There is something rather touching in the way in which a guy who is basically a waster can still be a loving father, at least when his daughter is within his sight. I also like the symmetry of actions e.g. when Cleo is with Johnny she lovingly cooks for him, then when he's on his own he makes a cak-handed attempted to cook for himself. This is a more eloquent portrayal of a lonely soul than a histrionic emotional breakdown would've been. I also got into the static framing and long takes of not much happening. It was relaxing and contemplative and gave me room to consider what was going in the relationships on screen. So, overall, I'd say that I really liked SOMEWHERE. It's not flawless, but it did affect me, and it affected me more than the movie most critics seem to prefer, the thematically similar but stylistically more showy LOST IN TRANSLATION.

SOMEWHERE played Venice 2010 where it won the Golden Lion, beating BLACK SWAN, and London 2010. It opened earlier this year in Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Greece, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Kazakhstan and Russia. It is currently on release in the UK and the US. It opens later this month in Australia, Norway, Finland and Malaysia. It opens in France, Estonia and Brazil in January and in the Czech Republic on February 10th. It opens on April 2nd in Japan.


  1. BillFenner196711/1/11 7:51 PM

    Like you, I enjoyed the film and found it more than worthwhile. I admire Sofia Coppola and will watch every movie she puts out simply because she is a different voice in American cinema.

    But I do have one problem with your review: misogyny, really?

    I never understand when critics call the film itself something - be it racist, anti-this or anti-that, or in this case, misogynist - just by the actions of characters. For me it was clear that Johnny surrounds himself with people who are without substance in an already shallow world (Hollywood). So of course every woman he encounters is a stripper, or star f'ing actress, whatever, because HE has chosen to be around them, hence his life is empty, vapid and meaningless. It's the arrival of his daughter - a female who drops into his world and is the only one who he didn't choose or pay to be in his company - that awakens this deadened part of him, which ultimately leads to him "checking out" of his soulless life.

    And by the way, the men he's around, are they much different? His best mate seems to have no purpose whatsoever except to arrange parties, play games and drink beer with. Apart from him - what other men are there in his life? None, really. Which I think was the point Coppola was making. Johnny uses people are playthings, male and female. As a result, he has no friends. In his hour of needs he calls his ex (I think) - a woman who clearly isn't like the strippers and pornstars he's usually around - and asks her to come over. She refuses. Johnny is clearly the kind of movie star who has a history of treating people poorly and as such has isolated himself.

    So why would a film depicting a shallow, selfish, indulgant man be itself misogynistic when all it does is honestly portray a life that is undoubtedly accurate for those (hopefully few) male movie stars who have lots of money and very little respect for people: male, female as well as themselves.

    I just think it's terribly unfair to label a film as being misogynist when, I believe, it has been made by someone (a woman no less) who respects the intelligence of the audience enough that there were no Big Messages (!) made by characters who verbalise the moral of the story. If this were any other film maker, there would have been a scene when Johnny's ex says to him: "You can't keep on treating women this way, Johnny. For your daughter's sake, you must change your life!" Etc. Coppola left it to us to come to that conclusion ourselves. No dialogue needed, which is why it's a quiet yet fascinating film that stays with us beyond the final scene.

  2. Finally we disagree!

    I really did mean the film not the characters and by that, what I really mean, is the intention of the director. Copolla has deliberately chosen to show us these characters react in this manner to these people and situations. And I do find her intentions toward them and the audience rather suspect. (Disclosure - I have a far more ambivalent attitude to her work in general).

    Here's the difference. For me, Antichrist was a film about misogyny - and the idea that a woman who was sexually fulfilled was derelict in her duty as a mother - really mining the concept of hysteria as something specific to women's biology and psychology. But it wasn't a misogynistic film because while Trier was exploring all of that he remained non-judgmental.

    By contrast, I find Copolla's film full of judgments regarding her characters and her prejudices about the viewers attitudes toward them. She has, after all, chosen to look at a male star and his female groupies rather than the other way round.

    I guess my basic thesis is that you can make a film about misogyny or racism or anti-semitism that isn't itself any of these things. Similarly, Copolla has made a film about boredom that isn't itself boring (in my view). But the fact that she doesn't choose to show one woman who isn't clinging to Johnny - except the ex-wife who is depicted unfavourably - speaks volumes. And as for the man - I think they are a broad palette. The best friend is pretty vacuous but not as needy as the women - just sort of lazily there. The Italian film producer is using women just as Johnny is. And then there are the technicians. The technicians are not, however, as mindless as the PR girl. In fact, they are the one's objectifying Johnny - literally!

  3. BillFenner196712/1/11 3:36 PM

    So the crux here is whether or not the film maker is percieved as passing judgement on the characters. OK, I can understand that. And as for Somewhere, I do see your point that all these ancillary characters - mostly female - who pass through Johnny's life aren't given any depth and so can be easily viewed as being shallow.

    But I suppose then the difference between you and I - on this point at least - is that I never thought these characters were being judged.

    Obviously no art is objectively viewed. We as humans interpret signs and read subtext according to our own unique experiences. So accordingly, perhaps it comes down to something as simple that I, as a male, didn't pick up on things that you as a female did. Which is perfectly legitimate and valid.

    However, I still believe that to accuse a film of misogyny is quite harsh, especially when the work itself is not explictly obscene or vulgar, a la some 80s sex comedy or recent toture porn film. I think Somewhere is striving for something higher and more meaningful than that and deserves to be treated as such. That said, your opinion is your opinion - one which I always delight in reading - and just wanted to express to you my own opinion on this matter.

  4. On the contrary, works that are obscene and vulgar in a simplistic tits-in-your-face manner don't worry me too much because iwhen their intent is that obvious it's easy to see, avoid and criticise. I am FAR more worried about movies that wear the guise of nuanced, sophisticated auteur cinema but which actually contain reactionary offensive sub-texts. Now, as you said, to each his own sub-text! (Although interesting that you assume I am more likely to read misogyny into it because I am a woman.) But to my mind, the fact that the film isn't "obvious" doesn't make it less worthy of harsh criticism but more so. I judge films partly by the standards they sets for themselves. And for me, the way in which Copolla writes those female characters, chooses to frame them and the way she edits to reaction shots is directing us, the audience, to make judgments. It's a veiled compliment - she is too good for her camera to be agnostic. I have the same ambivalence about Wagner, although, let's be clear, Copolla is no Wagner - neither in her talent nor in her crimes....