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Why hasn’t there been a new Sofia Coppola in three years? Yes, I know she was supposed to direct The Little Mermaid for Universal until the project fell through, and I know A Very Murray Christmas is available on Netflix, but that’s just not the same. Sure, the Bill Murray christmas special is fun, but it’s feels much more like, well, a Bill Murray special than a Sofia Coppola joint. This is all to say Somwhere made me miss Sofia Coppola.
Ever since she broke out big with Lost in Translation, it’s been clear that Coppola’s interest lie in mood much more than in any kind of plot. Somewhere is the least “plotty” of her movies. The protagonist is movie star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), who lives a decadent and unfulfilling life at the Chateau Mormont in Los Angeles. The movie opens with him driving his black ferrari on a deserted speedway. Coppola lingers on this image of a man driving his car in circles over and over again, every lap faster than the last. This seems to be the vein of Johnny’s existence. He has a set of sexy twins do an elaborate pole dance in his hotel room, and falls asleep before they’ve finished. Later, the falls asleep again, this time midway through foreplay with a woman he just met at a party.
Coppola, daughter of cinematic genius Francis, grew up in a family full of famous and successful people. Her movies -from her very first one to the last- seem to be obsessed with two subjects: fame and loneliness. Somewhere is the portrait of a man whose celebrity has rendered his existence redundant. The woman I mentioned above, the one who saw Johnny fall asleep mid-sex; he didn’t have to do anything to get in bed with her. He only introduced himself to her, then the camera cuts to him tearing up her blouse. Immediate satisfaction, that’s what Johnny’s life is about. And it’s become fairly meaningless.
The other main character of this story is Johnny’s daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning). Halfway through the film, Cleo moves in with Johnny after her mother goes through an unspecified crisis. Cleo fits in a somewhat familiar space for children of divorce, feeling as preoccupied about spending time with her parents, as she is resourceful to make her unusual existence alongside Johnny as mundane and “normal” as possible. She phones room service and asks for milk, butter, and cheese -as well as a cheese grinder- in order to cook some macaroni and cheese. At least Cleo has a future of her own ahead of her. She is a delightful ice skater, and she can grow up to do whatever she wants. Johnny seems to be trapped in this world.
Movies about middle-aged white men feeling sad can be easily dismissed. Especially those dealing with affluent people. The thing that sets Coppola’s movie apart is how uninterested she is in plot, and how committed she is to tell her story strictly through visual cues. From the very first scene of the car racing through the speedway, Coppola lingers on her images, giving the audience time and space to find Johnny’s loneliness, and what it means in the context of the movie. Almost every shot is static, and sticks around longer than one would expect. The late Harris Savides acts as cinematographer, and does an outstanding job of giving the movie a retro look that highlights the sharpness of the Southern California landscape.
The reason why these visual techniques are so effective, is because they serve Johnny as a character. This is not a movie that tries to make us feel sad about its protagonist. Somewhere, with its long immobile shots, is just trying to observe. The seeming banality of each scene, the monotony, the slacking rhythm, it is the formal representation of Johnny’s life. This might not be Coppola’s most sublime movie, but it’s her most formally disciplined exercise, and we could look back at it as a pivotal moment in her career. Tone and mood are some of the strongest tools of filmmaking, and Somewhere proves Coppola is a master of both.
Grade: 8 out of 10