9:28 am Jan. 3, 20111
Sofia Coppola is America's most unfairly maligned director.
Somewhere, released just before the holiday, is the third movie in what might be called Coppola's Hermetic Trilogy, following Lost in Translation (2003) and Marie Antoinette (2006). (Though her first feature, 1999's The Virgin Suicides, has similarities to her later films, its concerns are radically different.)
Like those movies, Somewhere explores, in extraordinary detail, a life of unbelievable decadence and deep ennui.
But compared to Lost in Translation, which had an expansive romantic vision, and Marie Antoinette, one of the more gleefully revisionist works of pop art of the last decade, Somewhere is supposed by some to be limited in scope and lacking imagination.
The reviews have been a mix of effusiveness and more than one kind of disdain, from the tossed-off (“The futility of a noodling movie star is hardly a revelation of the absurdity of the human condition, or whatever this movie is supposed to be about,” wrote the self-satisfied David Denby in last week's New Yorker) to the righteous (“The auteur far exceeds her players in being awestruck by the spell-binding power of a well-appointed suite,” wrote The Daily Beast's Richard Rushfield).
And we've seen this before. Film Threat called Marie Antoinette “self-indulgent shit,” and in The New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn wrote that “To be so unreflective, to want to make a film about Marie Antoinette that ignores who she was in history, seems shockingly naive, intellectually.” His next sentence ended with the name of a well-known German genocidal dictator.
And it's not just critics!
“When it comes to producing art about white girl problems,” wrote one Awl commenter of Coppola's œuvre, “PHYSICIAN, HEAL THYSELF.” And on a personal note, nothing I have said or done at work has provoked such mockery among my colleagues as my passionate defense of the film that provoked Mendelsohn's Reductio ad Hitlerum.
SOMEWHERE IS SMALLER AND MORE PENETRATING THAN its predecessors. It’s halting and tentative—a small movie—where the earlier two were glorious and bold. But her critics are wrong. Somewhere exhibits one of the more remarkable and consistent aspects of Coppola’s vision: her ability to empathize with her characters, and to express that empathy formally, so that each film is an expression of her subjects’ concerns and anxieties, no matter how trivial or superficial these might seem. That the filmmaker makes the film according to the vision of the characters is the central literary insight that is so singularly evident in this movie, and in Coppola's work.
Like Lost in Translation, in which we first see Bill Murray’s Bob Harris inside a limousine peering out at the Tokyo skyline, and Marie Antoinette, which opens with its heroine inside a carriage en route to France, Somewhere begins in vehiculo. Johnny Marco (played by a resigned, quietly doleful Stephen Dorff) is driving his black Ferrari around a racetrack in what looks like the middle of the desert, and the more laps he racks up, the more times the car and its tremendous rumble appear and disappear, the sadder and funnier the scene becomes. Yes, this is a man going in circles, detached from the world, but it’s a wry, self-knowing image rather than an entirely self-pitying one.
The plot, such as it is, is the Chateau Marmont-bound story of Johnny’s ongoing dissatisfaction with a life of celebrity, paralleled by his increasing closeness with his daughter, Cleo (the bright, openhearted Elle Fanning), who comes to stay with him when her mother “need[s] a break.” (From what, it’s unclear, but one can infer that it’s parenting, which suggests that self-indulgence isn't limited to bankable movie stars.)
Replace “daughter” with “a disaffected college graduate played by Scarlett Johansson,” and you have something like the plot of Lost in Translation. And the parallels are striking. In the earlier film, there is a striptease set to Peaches and a prostitute in Bob’s hotel room; in Somewhere, there are two striptease scenes, each with twin sisters, portable stripper poles, and a very bored Johnny.
(The newer film’s scenes are a triumph of direction—the earnest, bumbling strippers look less like sex objects and more like middle school theater kids, desperately going through the motions with no sense of what their movements are supposed to mean or do.)
Lost in Translation has passive-aggressive faxes, a slapstick shower scene, a strange musician/problematic sexual partner, a fake celebrity cameo, whispering male fans, and unsubtitled Japanese dialogue; Somewhere has aggressive-aggressive text messages, two slapstick shower scenes, an even stranger (though purely platonic) musician, a real celebrity cameo (“I met Bono in 59” is one of this year’s great ridiculous lines of dialogue), whispering female fans, and Italian unsubtitled dialogue.
But Somewhere isn't Lost in Translation: The L.A. Years. Though Coppola’s last three films have reveled in insular environments, she has a keen grasp of the larger context, even if we never get to see what that context actually is. And so this film, like its predecessors, is an outgrowth of its surroundings even as it hides them, rooted in a myopia that seems particular to Los Angeles, and to the world in which its more celebrated inhabitants reside.
Somewhere’s most salient differences from Lost in Translation emerge in the film’s final minutes. (I suppose that I should add a spoiler alert here, but in a film this elusive, descriptions don’t really give much away.) We have, again, an exchange of last words before the man and the woman go their separate ways, but unlike the enigmatic phrase, unheard by the audience, whispered into Scarlett Johansson’s ear in Lost in Translation, we hear exactly what Johnny says to Cleo. Unfortunately, she herself hears nothing—he’s standing too far away, and at any rate, the helicopter he has hired for a scenic Las Vegas flight ends up drowning him out. So even though we know exactly what’s in his heart—and what he so longs to express— she has no idea.
The sequence is more heartbreaking than the one in Lost in Translation. In the earlier film, the moment is loaded with potential and possibility, but the new one suggests that reticence will win out. And it's all the more heartbreaking because of how much pleasure Cleo gets from spending time with her father. And though Johnny's self-effacing self-absorption never fully recedes from view, the arrival of his daughter provokes something seemingly unprecedented: joy. And not just simple joy, but a joy rooted in the presence and actions of another human being. In other words, in Johnny, we see glimmers of the empathy that is never lacking in Coppola herself.
A schematic description of the plot (father reunites with daughter, father gets his life back, daughter gets her father back) overlooks the great pleasure of the film’s many perfect details. There is the brief close-up of Cleo’s satisfied face as she spoons homemade hollandaise sauce onto perfect plates of eggs benedict; the devastating, far too mature look that she gives her father after being forced into breakfast small talk with one of his many one-night stands; the hapless bemusement Johnny flashes Cleo as he stands onstage, surrounded by a ludicrous gaggle of buxom, dancing Italian women; her age-appropriate glee at wearing the most beautiful dress ever worn by an eleven-year-old.
I DIDN’T INTEND FOR THIS TO BE MERELY A LIST of glances and faces, but it speaks to Coppola’s surgical attention to small gestures and moments that these are what stand out most. Johnny spends a lot of time looking—at clothed strippers, topless strangers, the view from his Ferrari, the hotel’s slightly shabby walls—but it’s only when Cleo arrives that he starts to pay attention. (Speaking of looking at strippers, Coppola doesn't ignore the darker potentialities of the father-daughter relationship. Johnny stares at strippers’ underwear only minutes before he sees Cleo ice skating, and when he asks her to do a headstand in the hotel pool, her legs can’t help but resemble the strippers’ long, pitiful slide down the pole. This isn't to suggest a darker subtext to Johnny’s interactions with Cleo, but that Coppola acknowledges that a man whose relationships never last longer than a few hours might have some trouble with something more lasting, even with his daughter.)
Somewhere is at once open-ended and constrained, a collection of highly-controlled interstitial moments. Though we come to know Johnny and Cleo through these little fragments—long L.A. drives; the promotional photo shoot, rather than the premiere; hours spent chain-smoking to pass the time before another party—their future never unfolds: Coppola is playing with our expectations of movies, of plots.
Yet in the final scene, she seems to give us the Hollywood ending we've been waiting for. Each film in what we have supposed to be a trilogy is shot almost entirely indoors, in cars, carriages, hotel rooms, drawing rooms, temples, bars, and ice skating rinks. (When Marie Antoinette does go out into the pastoral countryside, she’s still on the grounds of Versailles, reading Rousseau next to her guest house.)
Though all of the protagonists are confined, for better or for worse, there is a sense that the world outside simply doesn't exist for them.
So when (and here, a second spoiler alert, though, again, knowing this will not affect your enjoyment of the movie) Johnny drives into the desert, parks his car, and simply starts walking, it’s a decision that should liberate him and us. After all, countless movies have ended with a triumphant, decisive gesture like this one. For the first time in ninety minutes, our protagonist is a man of action, changing course instead of floating downstream.
But Sofia Coppola is too savvy, and maybe too cynical, to let a happy ending cap what is, fundamentally, a very unhappy movie. What we’re seeing instead is a man desperate to abandon Hollywood, but able only to conceive of escape in Hollywood terms. It's an ending whose savage ironies played especially well at the AMC Loews' Lincoln Square 13, surrounded by the plastic movie-palace elephants. Self-critical as he is, even Johnny can’t fully grasp the confines of his surroundings. He is hopelessly hemmed in—he can see that this is a life he doesn't want, but the alternatives are impossible to imagine. In the end, what Johnny is incapable of doing is exactly what Coppola does remarkably well. As generous and empathetic as they are, her insular, tight little films investigate their worlds with great rigor and honesty. They are intentionally one-sided, but clear-eyed and perceptive, all the same. For Sofia Coppola, one’s surroundings are wholly deterministic, which is why Somewhere isn't an ambiguous location, but a place of remarkable specificity.
Though she is consistently chided for her vagueness, there are few contemporary directors more attuned to the specifics of place than Coppola. One could argue that this attention is fatally compromised by her status—she, along with her characters, is never more than a superficial observer, reveling in hotel rooms, tourist attractions, views from windows and balconies. But far from being vague, pointless, detached, she just stringently refuses to notice anything her characters wouldn't. Far from being impersonal, she is our cinema's radical humanist.
In the earliest hours after the film's first midnight show, as towering escalators fed empty lobbies and a few kids huddled around a shabby arcade in a corner, the cavernous Lincoln Square theater looked like nowhere. The plastic palm trees and murals of long-lost movie palaces with names like the Paradise and the Valencia aspire to transport the theatergoer to Hollywood’s glamorous past. But the stabs at individuation and the halfhearted pastiche paradoxically make one long for an honest suburban multiplex, where Cecil B. DeMille-esque Tutankhamen heads and elephant wall reliefs are as hard to find as public transportation.
But the lobby’s blown-up posters for new releases and coming attractions made even this fake version of Old Hollywood seem authentic and appealing. There’s the Sandler and Aniston romantic comedy scheduled for Valentine’s Day, and that other one in January with Kutcher and Portman, and the one that’s playing now, with Depp and Jolie.
Both the artificial past Hollywood and its all-too-depressing present recede into the background—or don't, quite—as you sit down to watch Coppola's quietly devastating film about L.A.’s deceptive glamour.