Somewhere, Chekhov & Coppola

3 Jan

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit to it after Mark Kermode’s full-blown rant (well worth checking out – hugely entertaining, pertinent and a fab Hotel California anaology!) but I enjoyed Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Admittedly, unlike the excellent Lost in Translation, I wasn’t blown away and I certainly wasn’t on the edge of my seat fretting about what became of Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (an excellent Elle Fanning) and the rest of the cast. But might this be the point?

Chekhov claimed that audiences weren’t supposed to identify with his characters, but to be annoyed by them; to shriek at Olga, Maria and Irina to stop faffing and just get the darn train to Moscow. The difficulty, however, lies in balancing this with the use of a well-known, able cast. Careful handling is needed if the audience is to be challenged to change their lives rather than simply feel justified in their passivity. ‘But if X [insert actor of choice], is ground down by their life, what chance do I have?’ It could be argued, then, that Coppola and her cast have negotiated this balancing act with success.

Equally, I agree with Mark Kermode that the pole-dancing scenes go on way too long and are indisputably boring, but maybe this is intentional. The scenes aren’t salacious, or sexy, or even interestingly sleazy: they’re simply dull. And that the dancers and Johnny appear as bored as we are is surely a more effective critique than portraying the women as either victims or somehow empowered by their role.

David Denby in the New Yorker comments that ‘the funk of a noodling movie star is hardly a revelation of the absurdity of the human condition’. And David Edelstein writes ‘Coppola’s poor-rich-girl vision is certainly consistent, although you sometimes wonder if she knows that hers is not the universal human condition.’ I’d argue, however, that the vacuousness of the film world that Coppola portrays does filter down through society, so there are lessons to extrapolate. And while the frustration we feel with Johnny won’t bring the star system crashing down overnight, it might at least lead to some healthy questioning.

The fact that we don’t identify – or particularly engage – with the characters does make this a coolly intellectual rather than emotional working out of the problem, but this isn’t necessarily a criticism. Coppola’s minimalist approach and Harris Savides’ stunning cinematography manage both to support this coolness and create the heart of the film. The film’s beauty offers the emotional engagement we don’t get from the cast and is, finally, the antidote to the emptiness at the heart of Johnny’s world.

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