Locarno 2021 review: Where Are You (Riccardo Spinotti & Valentina De Amicis)

Forever his inspiration, we’ve always been a team… but the artist is nothing without his muse

These words appear towards the start of Where Are You, the wonderfully ambitious drama co-directed by Valentina De Amicis and Riccardo Spinotti, who undertake the unenviable task of making a film centred on the sordid activities of the art world, working as a disconcerting backstage drama to the artistic process and the people who populate this industry. A brutal but captivating deconstruction of this world, the film is a remarkable achievement that appears to take inspiration from many cinematic and artistic sources. Particularly the work of Terrence Malick, whose more recent output seems to have inspired the directors in both the unforgettable images of which the film is composed and the metaphysical style of telling a frantic, non-linear story in a way that feels earnest and authentic, and insightful to its broader philosophical intentions. Through making use of shifting perspectives, intricate detail and a story that pays tribute to the world of art while it eviscerates those who refuse to take their chosen vocation seriously, Where Are You is a truly impressive achievement.

Making sense of Where Are You is a fool’s errand, since it is not a film designed to be particularly accessible. The protagonist’s life and art are referred to as “a beautiful confusion” by one of the characters, which becomes shorthand for most of what De Amicis and Spinotti were doing when putting this story together. Art does not always need to make sense in order to be considered effective, but instead should strive to make a statement. In this case the purpose of this film is to reflect the curious and labyrinthine mind of its creators, made manifest in the main character of Nicolas (played wonderfully by the introspective and thoughtful Irakli Kvirikadze, who develops the character alongside the story), who serves as their surrogate as they navigate this strange version of the world and realize their own curiosities. The protagonist has mastered the skill of capturing other people’s lives and positioning them so as to create art – yet he struggles with his own identity, which is made increasingly clear by every new encounter with someone who pushes him to define himself, when his entire life has been a rebellion against such classifications.

Throughout the film the main character (and by association, the entire audience) is asked a simple question: “what inspires you?Where Are You is built on a series of thoughtful but polarizing discussions about artistic expression, and how many artists tend to do their best work when drawing inspiration from everyday life. Nicolas is a wayward individual whose life is driven by his desire to create, not because he derives pleasure from it but because it allows him to compensate for his empty and confusing existence through expressing himself artistically, taking snapshots of a reality that is happening around him but in which he is never an active participant. De Amicis and Spinotti provoke a number of fascinating ideas throughout this film, particularly in their approach to representing the main character’s artistic process, crafting a delicate but gripping manifesto on creativity, and the occasional lack thereof, which is a common problem for many in Nicolas’ industry. As we see throughout his journey, it is increasingly difficult to discern where real life ends and art begins – and for someone whose career is built on expression, is it possible to say that there is any tangible boundary between living and performing?

Where Are You asks far more questions than it is willing to provide answers for. This can be frustrating, until we realize that it is entirely intentional, with the refusal to solve the mysteries at the heart of the story being a purposeful choice to provoke and bewilder with some deeper ideas. A meandering experimental drama set within the art world, the film exists at the intersection between art and existential philosophy, drawing inspiration from both areas and assimilating it flawlessly into the fabric of this enigmatic character study. A mosaic of memories, fantasies and delusions, all contained within the mind of a brilliant but disturbed young photographer who is trying to avoid the inevitable “last gasp of a dying artist”, the film weaves together some unforgettable imagery with haunting psychological commentary that only enriches the directors’ approach to telling this strange but captivating story. There are many ways to approach this film and its portrayal of art, but if there is a single interpretation that we can glean from its overall message, it would be that a single moment in life is fleeting but the art that inspired it lasts for an eternity – if there isn’t any depth or meaning to what one creates, as well as some part of the artist reflected in the work, can it truly be called art?