“Somewhere” (2011) beyond words
24 August 2011
Sofia Coppola’s Golden Lion-winning Somewhere can be disconcerting for its paucity of spoken words. It is, above all, about people who spend their time looking and being looked at rather than speaking: A-list movie stars, models, exotic dancers. Its protagonist, action star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), spends his days at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont hotel drinking and lounging and picking up women and watching blonde pole dancers in twin sexy nurse outfits dance for him alone.Recovering from a broken wrist, he’s in this strange limbo, this somewhere, that seems alternately exotic and utterly mundane: he gazes impassively out of car windows, stares blankly at the pole dancers, and falls asleep in the middle of performing cunnilingus. He’s passive, lacking agency except for all those random hookups — and in Coppola’s subtle way, she asks us to think about such an existence in a way that never seems simple, never merely empathetic. What would it mean to spend your time being wordless?
For me such an existence is fundamentally foreign, for my world is structured by words — my days are (happily) filled with writing, reading, listening, debating, and (less happily, but I’m okay with it) lecturing and leading discussions. Here I am, in my free time, writing some more. There’s nothing that makes me happier than the anticipation of cocktails with quick-witted friends full of tales and observations; a perfect sentence in an email can make me emit involuntary squee noises. Words made me fall in love; they made me have an existential crisis while reading on a bus back in college. This film made me step out of my logocentric world to somewhere else.
After watching Johnny stare with blank pleasure at the pole dancers, it’s disconcerting to watch him gaze at his 11-yr-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning). And yet … it’s not the same gaze, is it? Cleo has arrived for a regularly scheduled visit from Johnny’s ex; one of their first stops is the ice rink, where she’s taking skating lessons. At first, Johnny’s distracted — he keeps getting threatening texts from an anonymous number — but then he turns away from his phone and starts to watch Cleo move through a choreographed routine. She’s still tentative, but graceful; one can see her growing confidence in making difficult moves. Director Coppola is content to just let us watch Cleo, and watch Johnny watching Cleo, for it brings up strange emotions. One can’t help but think, at first, about how much Johnny’s tired eyes are more accustomed to watching exotic dancers; is he sexualizing his daughter? Coppola knows we’ll move through that thought to something more subtle: the ways that when he’s with Cleo, Johnny starts to show signs of life.
It took me a while to see Somewhere, and by this time I worried I wouldn’t like it. A lot of critics expressed a kind of frustration with it that amounts to something like, Why should I care about some rich actor’s ennui? I’ve written before about the suspiciously sweeping criticism leveled at Coppola: for example, although he attributes these complaints to unnamed “critics,” Dennis Lim of the New York Times claimed last December that “she makes the same film over and over again,” and that “the problem is not just repetition but a kind of solipsism.” As Rob noted back then in the comments to my post, it doesn’t really make sense to call Coppola an auteur and simultaneously complain that she returns to similar themes from one film to the next, which is pretty much what auteurs do.
After reading all that naysaying, imagine my delight when I found Somewhere to be striking and different than Coppola’s earlier The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette. This one is ultimately about a kind of unexpected parenthood — a man living an aimless, oversexed life begins to find himself opening up to a new, inexpressible love and connection to his daughter. Just look at that complex expression on Johnny’s face, above, as he watches Cleo skate on the ice: this is a lovely screen portrayal of what parental love can do for a man who’s essentially just a child himself. It might well be an idealized portrait of fatherhood — after all, Johnny is unencumbered by worries about money or work. But I’ve never seen it before onscreen, and it doesn’t feel idealized when you watch him experience these emotions.The hardest part for Dorff and Coppola was to achieve all of this wordlessly, in long shots of facial expressions. Imagine the contortions involved: you are Stephen Dorff (a famous actor with many rabid fans out there), playing a different famous actor who’s used to crazy adoration. Your job is to act without any crucial dialogue, and to express on your face that weird conglomeration of feelings — from a growing contentment with life to anxious protectiveness — that emerge from this deepening relationship with your kid. Let’s face it: words don’t really capture those emotions.
Which brings me to one last note about an uncharacteristically funny moment in the film. Despite speaking very little Italian themselves, Johnny and Cleo fly to Milan to attend an Italian TV awards show at which the garrulous hosts ramble on with typical MC repartee in rapid-fire Italian. They invite Johnny up on stage to receive an award and tell him “the stage is all yours” — but as soon as he expresses gratitude and delight in his limited Italian, an overcaffeinated group of female dancers pour out on stage to wiggle and grind and sing lyrics he can’t understand, leaving him perplexed as to what to do. He’s left standing there again, wordless, grinning uncomfortably.
Yeah, maybe that moment is a little bit like Lost in Translation — but the context is so different that it’s unfair to make that charge. Honestly, I don’t care if Coppola herself is rich, the daughter of a famous director, and preoccupied with capturing inchoate feelings onscreen. She does extraordinary work, and I can hardly wait to see what she’ll do next. I, for one, am happy to set aside my logorrhea for a Sofia Coppola film in which emotion comes before words.