Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning
Run Time: 98 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated R
Although perhaps still more famous for being the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola is quietly and insistently staking her claim as a noteworthy filmmaker in her own right. Unlike her father, however, who speaks ruefully of being under Hollywood’s thumb for much of his career, she is sticking to the path of a true auteur, making highly personal independent films that follow no one’s tastes but her own.
Ms Coppola’s first film, “The Virgin Suicides,” garnered praise for its hip imagery, innovative use of music and inspirational casting, but its fabulist narrative (taken from a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides) didn’t seem to fit Ms. Coppola’s formalist style. Success came with her second film, “Lost in Translation,” which she also scripted. Its combination of wit, anomie and acute attention to cultural ticks, and Bill Murray’s deadpan characterization of an actor in a mid-career funk, caught the attention of critics and audiences alike. The film won her an Academy Award for best original screenplay; that and her Oscar nomination for best director ensured her status as a woman who could sit with the big boys in Hollywood.
This director does not seem to want to play the Hollywood game, however, and so her films refuse to adhere to its conventions. Her next film, “Marie Antoinette,” a lavish costume affair set during a significant chapter of European history, barely touched on any of the dramatic events that its subject would normally occasion. Instead, Ms. Coppola concentrated on the personal–and yes, therefore superficial–life of a teenage queen, and the aristocratic lifestyle that bred and shaped her. The film was an intriguing exploration of the intricate and constrained daily rituals of courtly life (a life of privilege never looked so stifling), but sadly, many considered the film an indulgent trifle.
Ms. Coppola’s fourth film “Somewhere” is seen as a return to the kind of film “Lost in Translation” was, but the truth is not nearly so plain. The two films certainly have much in common. They are both set in iconic hotels-”Lost in Translation” takes place at the prestigious and culturally neutral way station that is the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, and “Somewhere” is mostly set at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, a nesting ground for the hedonistic lifestyle of rootless young movie stars (Keanu Reeves lived there for a year; John Belushi overdosed there).
Both films center on the empty existence of a male actor who is jolted out of his existential stupor by a feminine catalyst. In “Lost in Translation,” Bill Murray plays a jaded aging actor who befriends a young woman (Scarlett Johansson), who also happens to be in a kind of existential limbo. In “Somewhere,” Stephen Dorff plays the matinee idol Johnny Marco, an actor at the zenith of an empty career playing action heroes, who is nudged out of his own existential wasteland when his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) comes to stay with him. In some ways, Stephen Dorff could be Bill Murray’s younger self–a younger, less seasoned (and therefore, perhaps, less self-aware) version of the privileged person who asks himself, “What’s it all about?”
“Somewhere” doesn’t have the snappy dialogue or ironic presence of Bill Murray, or the loveliness of Scarlett Johansson, to help counter the morose and morally bankrupt atmosphere of its Chateau Marmont setting, nor does it have the witty backdrop of Japanese culture that enhanced “Lost in Translation.” Hollywood culture has already been examined and parodied ad infinitum, so if anything, its milieu feels old and tired. Luckily, all that doesn’t matter, because what “Somewhere” does have is a formalistic rigor that demands a more active engagement, and by extension, a new way of experiencing a film, a way that seems somehow quite feminine. Rather than charge ahead with a plot-driven story, “Somewhere” is almost passive, flowing from one mood to another; you just have to go with it, let each scene envelope you on its own terms.
The film’s languorous rhythm can be downright maddening at times–there’s a scene where Johnny Marco literally does nothing else except sit in his room and smoke a cigarette from beginning to end; another scene is of two pole dancers performing to an entire song in Johnny’s hotel room. By the time you’ve reached the point of wondering how much longer it will last, the scenes turn into something else–your mind re-engages and what you’re seeing becomes something else entirely. Whether or not it’s a place you want to be depends a lot on where your mind has taken you. There’s a wonderful example of this in a scene where Johnny Marco has his whole head covered in a plaster mold by a special effects technician for a movie he’s in. The scene feels interminable, but by its end–with Johnny Marco’s head transformed into that of an old man–you realize that what you have just witnessed has induced a plethora of ideas about all sorts of things, about aging, acting, the mundanity behind any profession, or just the sheer absurdity of seeing a head covered in white plaster with two tiny straws in each nostril for breathing.
At other times, watching “Somewhere” is like experiencing something we already know personally. The scenes between Johnny Marco and his daughter are so touchingly intimate, and if you take away the setting of privilege and excess, they feel almost iconic. This is one of Sofia Coppola’s gifts as a filmmaker-she chooses extremely specific moments and somehow turns them into universal ones. Elle Fanning’s performance is perfectly in sync with the director’s aesthetic–her characterization of Cleo is beautifully transparent. The complexity that surrounds her hasn’t penetrated yet; she looks and acts like an 11-year-old girl. That’s not easy to do on a movie set; Elle Fanning’s lack of self-consciousness is hypnotic.
Sofia Coppola is experimenting with the film medium in ways that surpass her previous films; she is definitely pushing the envelope of film form in “Somewhere.” Comparisons have been made to Michelangelo Antonioni, a filmmaker who chose atmosphere over plot and visual cues over dialogue to convey ideas, and who was the quintessential master of the long take. Others are comparing “Somewhere” to “Jeanne Dielman,” Chantal Ackerman’s classic narrative film that broke the sound barrier in terms of just how little information a scene must include and still be provocative and coherent. I would invite another comparison, to Wim Wenders’ “Alice in the Cities.” a very early film of his about a brief friendship that develops between a journalist suffering from writer’s block and a nine-year-old girl he meets on a train. Sofia Coppola’s films are always searching for something within an atmosphere of loneliness, and feeling out of place, and like Wenders’ own filmic journey, “Somewhere” exists in the moments between events, when the mundane details of existence are the very things that bring insight, and meaning.
Whomever you compare her to, Sofia Coppola is here to remind us that film is an art form, and “Somewhere” is yet another work of art of her own design. I look forward to seeing where her muse takes her next.