Dir. Sofia Coppola. USA. 2010.

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“We have become so alienated from ourselves that when our true self reveals itself, it seems like an alien to us.” - Terrence McKenna

In Sofia Coppola's Somewhere, actor Johnny Marco (Srephen Dorff), engages in one meaningless activity after another, then it is quickly forgotten. Though not in touch with the Buddhist concept of impermanence being an instrument to achieve a liberating insight, through a growing connection with his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), he slowly becomes aware that his life has been, in the words of author Samuel Beckett, a thing “where true light never was, nor any upright thing, nor any true foundation.” As an actor, Marco is a Hollywood star caught in the trappings of celebrity. In a culture in which celebrities are often elevated to the level of gods, he experiences every minute of the pleasure it offers, but enjoys none of it.

Johnny lives at the Chateau Marmont, a West Hollywood hotel frequented by celebrities. Everything is at his disposal - a fawning staff, available women, all the amenities he could possibly want. He is near everything but close to nothing. Distracted by the “stuff” of his life - the phone calls from his agent, interviews, press conferences, publicity trips, text messages, and so forth, he is unable to realize how emotionally numb he has become. Adhering to the Buddhist saying, “Do not speak- unless it improves on silence,” there is no dialogue for the first ten minutes of the film. In the opening sequence, Johnny drives his black Ferrari around a circular track four or five times as Coppola makes the point abundantly clear that he is going nowhere fast. The film then shifts to a hotel room where he lies sprawled on his bed watching pole dancing twins perform their sexual routine, but it is so unstimulating that he falls asleep and the girls leave. 

Johnny's stupor is interrupted when his ex-wife Marge (Amanda Anka) suddenly appears in his hotel room. She tells him that she needs to go away for a while and asks him to look after their 11-year old daughter Cleo and to make sure that she gets to summer camp on time. Though there is no back story in their relationship, Johnny is now required to pay close attention to Cleo and is forced to question his lifestyle and face up to his responsibilities as a father. Cleo is bright, attractive, and mature and one of the few women in the film that is not a stereotype. When he is with her, a different picture of Johnny emerges. He is tender and caring as he watches her skillful ice skating with great pride. 

They go swimming together and he takes her to Milan where they stay at the luxurious Hotel Principe di Savoia, exposing her to directly experience her father's celebrity status. Cleo is a passive observer as her father is constantly being approached by would be actors, hangers on, and women seeking sex. She watches as he has to answer silly questions at a press conference and attends a gala event where her father is honored but left standing awkwardly on stage with a mike in his hand as voluptuous girls dance around him. Although Cleo does not say anything when one of her dad's trysts shows up at their breakfast table, the look on her face speaks volumes. 

One of the most telling scenes is when Johnny has a mask made of his face to play an elderly man. He must sit in one position for forty five minutes, his head covered with a plaster cast, just sitting and breathing in a Zen-like ritual where his attention, perhaps for the first time, is on just being without having to do anything. When he is with his daughter, Johnny seems alive, but it is only after she leaves for camp that he is overwhelmed by sadness, telling his ex-wife on the phone that he is “nothing, not even a person.” Unlike Coppola's film Lost in Translation, ennui is not the only possible outcome and the characters experience something deeper about themselves. 

As the philosopher Plato put it, “When human capacity is stretched to the limit, a spark of understanding and intelligence flashes out and illuminates the subject at issue.” With the insight that he is nothing, Johnny is open to the realization that, in fact, he is not only some thing, but a thinking, feeling being, larger than just a person to be manipulated. Winner of the 2010 Golden Lion in Venice, Somewhere is film of observation and nuance, a unique character study with a core of conviction and authenticity, perhaps mirroring Coppola's own experience of growing up in a celebrity household. Though the pace is slow, it is a compelling and moving experience, one that is filled with the joy of discovery.


Howard Schumann

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