My local film club opened the autumn season with Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. The program committee seemed to have doubts about how it would be received. There was something apologetic about the way they presented it in the booklet:
“Somewhere starts with a Ferrari driving round after round on a deserted race track, after which a man is dozing on a bed while two hired strippers are performing their mechanical dance routine. This is all we see during the first fifteen minutes of the movie. Either you’ll shake your head disapprovingly at the slow pace already here or you’ll adjust your heartbeat, sink into the atmosphere and start to see the world through the fading action actor Johnny Marco’s eyes”.
A slow movie
I considered myself warned and expected the worst, so when we left the racing track after only a few minutes, I was a bit surprised it was already over. But basically they’re right about the pace.
Somewhere IS a very slow movie, and while I nurse a deep hatred for judgments such as “like watching paint dry”, which IMDB users toss at every movie anywhere slower than James Bond, the label is quite relevant this time.
On one occasion we get to spend at least a minute staring at Johnny as he’s had his face covered with a paste in order to make a mask. Everything is covered apart from his nostrils. Nothing happens. We watch the paint dry and we listen to his breathing. Did I hear him breathe a little bit faster towards the end? Or was it just my imagination starting to play tricks with me?
I know some people don’t like my favourite movie Lost in Translation very much, slowness being one of their major complaints. But Lost in Translation is nothing compared to Somewhere, in terms of slowness. And it had way more interaction between the actors. People were speaking to each other. Johnny in Somewhere doesn’t say very much at all.
Most of the time we just follow him walking around, looking lost in his world of fame and wealth, a life most people only could dream of. Not even the gorgeous women who throw themselves into his arms wherever he goes give him pleasure. It’s the ultimate boredom. When he by circumstances is forced to spend some time with his daughter, you would expect this to stir up something, but the changes are very subtle. His imprisoned artificial life goes on as always, in hotel rooms, at marketing events for his movies and in beds with women whose name he doesn’t bother to learn.
Easy to mock
This movie is definitely not for everyone and it’s an easy target for mocking and harsh criticism. My favorite reviewer Mark Kermode absolutely hated it and did a genuinely highly entertaining rant about it.
But even if it was funny to listen to, I actually disagree. While I don’t think Somewhere is as good as Lost in Translation, I liked it a lot.
Once you get used to the pace of it you can start noticing details. Not much is said, not much is going on, but this also leaves you room to think for yourself and ponder what’s happening inside his head. What is he thinking under that mask, breathing through the nostrils? Is he thinking at all? Or is he just seeing life passing him by? And why did he end up like that? Like Marie Antoinette he’s surrounded by luxury and yet he can’t sense the taste of it anymore. For how unlikable he is as a person, I feel myself pulled into his head, starting to see the world through his eyes. Being Johnny Marco, without the sudden exit on the motor way.
The encounter with his daughter could easily have been turned into something unbearably predictable in the hands of a different writer and director. I can picture how the standard Hollywood take on this story would look. After going through a few incidents, clashing with his daughter, Johnny would step by step learn about what real life should be like and after a big turning point – maybe she’d get cancer or get overrun by a car and die – he would – whoppy doo – quit acting and become a soup kitchen volunteer. Every Christmas he’d brush off his old skills, putting on a beard to amuse the children. He’d be poor but live happy for the rest of his life, finally free from the chains of greed and egoism. THE END.
But Coppola didn’t do this in Lost in Translation and she doesn’t do it in Somewhere either, and that’s what’s so wonderful about her movies. The story does take a turn one way or another eventually. Without giving any details I found it satisfying and uplifting with a just a pinch of sugar, not an overdose.
You could ask the question if Coppola is repeating herself. A rich and famous actor who is lost in life spends his days in a hotel where he’s alienated from the world and himself until he meets someone and he slowly starts to spot a connection and get in touch with the ground. We’ve seen it before, in Lost in Translation. However, I don’t consider the resemblance a problem.
Sofia Coppola is not the only artist to get back to certain themes. Rembrandt too painted himself over and over again, and believe me, and when I saw all those portraits assembled at one exposition in Netherlands some years ago, I didn’t think “crap, why is he repeating himself, I’d rather just see one of them”. I started to notice and appreciate the differences and think about how they corresponded to each other.
I think Somewhere made a wonderful season start for my movie club. When we’ll reach the end of the autumn, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be one of my favorites.
Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, US, 2010) My rating: 4,5/5