Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere
I saw Sofia Coppola’s latest film Somewhere on Christmas. The film was playing in limited release in Los Angeles and other cities. The film chronicles a few weeks in the life of fictional actor/celebrity Johnny Marco played by Stephen Dorff. Opposite Dorff is Elle Fanning, who convincingly plays Marco’s 11 year old daughter Cleo.
The film centers around Cleo being left with Johnny after her mother unexplainably needs to “get away.” Johnny fumbles his way through full time father the best he can while his clumsily deals with the other women in his life, a seemingly non-stop troupe of shallow sexual relationships with the attractive women who seem to be both drawn and repulsed by him everywhere he turns.
Johnny and Cleo’s relationship is both sweet and tender. You can tell that he has a genuine love for his daughter and feels his only real connection on this planet with her. Tea parties underwater in a hotel swimming pool, ice cream in bed at an Italian luxury hotel, her tired head on his shoulder as a waiter at the Chateau Marmont serenades them with a gentle acoustic rendition of Elivs Presley’s “Teddy Bear,” — these moments portray a soft authentic human Johnny Marco who seems to relish the brief moments of human connection he can find with his daughter.
Contrasted with Johnny’s tender moments with Cleo is the cliche of being a Hollywood celebrity and the ultimate emptiness that all the money and fame can bring — accented, as one might expect, by plenty of booze, cigarettes, pills and then there are those women again. The women are non-stop, like a drug for Johnny, but a drug that ultimately never satisfies and leaves a string of disappointment and resentment behind in its wake. Anonymous hateful text messages litter the movie on Johnny’s cell phone from what one would imagine are the series of shallow sexual relationships that he quickly moves in and out of.
Johnny is both awkward and distrustful with his celebrity status. He quickly gets out of a conversation with a new actor at a party who tries to engage him about method acting. He looks like a deer in headlights as he’s bombarded at a press conference about his latest film, barely able to offer any substantive answers at all — the last question in the press conference seems to be the hardest and most direct for Johnny and we are left hanging without an answer. “Who *is* Johnny Marco”?
The answer is, even Johnny doesn’t know who Johnny Marco is. At his best he is a flawed but well meaning father. At his weakest an empty shell of man who has been manufactured into yet another quality Tinsletown superstar product — his only little moments of self pride seem to be around things like the fact that he does his own stunts (and has injured his arm to prove it). Johnny is more or less a celebrity shuffled around by Hollywood’s money machine, his sense of individuality limited to the logo t-shirts that he wears to express his own sense of style and taste in contrast to the polished marketed Hollywood world around him. It’s nice to see Black Flag get a shout out.
It’s the relationship between alienation and time that Coppola does best. Long drawn out uncomfortable scenes that highlight the boredom of loneliness. Johnny sits in hotel room smoking a cigarette from start to finish. You hear every drag and the quiet popping of the tobacco burning as he inhales. He picks up his beer and you hear every single sound, the beer bottle leaving the glass table the sound as the liquid as it goes down his throat, the elevator moving outside the hallway.
In another scene, a mask is cast for Johnny out of plaster and he keeps the plaster on his face for a half hour and Coppola spends what feels like an eternity focusing on Johnny as a solitary figure with two small nose holes cut in his mask for him to breath. Each inhale, each exhale, each swallow amplified in the emptiness of the rest of the scene and with the time that it drags on. We watch, in an almost uncomfortable sense of voyeurism and pity mixed with a touch of claustrophobia. The payoff in the end of that scene is seeing Johnny completely in mask as a 70 year old version of himself.
Somewhere as a whole is a beautiful story, put together one touching scene at a time — but really it’s strength is not the plot in totality which on its own is quite thin. Rather, like its predecessor Lost in Translation, Somewhere is best viewed as a series of lighter interconnected scenes — each almost a sort of short film in and of itself. It’s the strength of the individual scenes rather than the scenes sewn together as a whole that the ultimate success of the film rests on.
In fact so much of the film feels in so many ways very similar to Lost in Translation, and undoubtedly and inevitably begs comparison. There is the relationship between celebrity and the international’s quirky television media (Japan in LIT, Italy in Somewhere). This time Johnny and Cleo play Guitar hero Reminiscent of the karaoke scene between Bob and Charlotte in LIT.
At their deepest level both films deal with the alienation of their central characters and both offer companionship as some sort of redemption, never quite fulfilled in the end though as this thing we call life so often seems the insurmountable true barrier between real connectedness.
It would be remiss not to mention another successful element of the film, the music. For those of you who loved the soundtrack to LIT, you will love the soundtrack to Somewhere just as much. Scored by the band Phoenix, the music goes perfectly with the beautiful artistic cinematographic scenes Coppola has constructed. Music takes a central role with many of the scenes played almost as entire songs, less as background more as foreground. Dialog is minimized as Coppola more or less uses long strong scenes around the dominating music. Nowhere is this more prominent than in Stroke’s frontman Julian Casablanca’s stripped down gentle demo version of “I’ll Try Anything Once.” The song is played in it’s entirety in the film over scenes of a loving father daughter relationship.
All in all, Somewhere is a strong effort and result by Sophia Coppola. Lost in Translation fans will undoubtedly enjoy a very similar film. While the film in some ways feels less daring than you might like, Coppola has a unique voice as a filmmaker and it is nice seeing something that tries a little bit harder to achieve an artistic sensation than the average Hollywood blockbuster these days. If you love big budget Hollywood action films, you’ll probably hate Somewhere. But that’s ok. The world needs more films like this.