Notable Festivals: Venice (Golden Lion)
Growing up as a member of Hollywood royalty, director Sofia Coppola spent a large portion of her formative years in hotels, often accompanying her father, iconic 70’s auteur Francis Ford Coppola, on film shoots in various locations both near and far. The lack of attachment to a singular house or place during her childhood appears to have a direct correlation with the dreamlike emotional detachment of her own film work as an adult– her protagonists are almost always adrift in a sea of malaise, simply occupying a space rather than living in it. Watching her fourth feature effort, 2010’s SOMEWHERE, it becomes readily apparent that Coppola regards Los Angeles’ historic Chateau Marmont hotel as her own kind of home; a place in which she spent a great deal of her youth because of her father’s work. Within these hallowed halls, Coppola feels a special kinship with the actors, rock stars, and fashionistas that have lived, laughed, and loved there. Over the years, Coppola has forged her own personal relationship with the hotel and its staff, to the extent that they would host one of her birthday parties and, like her all-access pass to Versailles Palace during 2006’s MARIE ANTOINETTE, allow her carte blanche use of the site for the shooting of SOMEWHERE.
After the extravagant period production of MARIE ANTOINETTE, Coppola was compelled to return to a simpler form of storytelling– a form that resembled her 2003 feature LOST IN TRANSLATION in that it served as more of a mood piece than a conventional narrative. Indeed, SOMEWHERE plays like a close companion piece to her earlier film, dealing in the same feelings of alienation and uncertainty while effectively sealing off her protagonists from the outside world within the walls of a visually-distinctive hotel. Coppola’s script drew inspiration from various aspects of her personal life (her own history with the Chateau Marmont and the birth of her second child) as well as a variety of other sources, from Bruce Weber’s Hollywood portraits, to Helmut Newton’s photos of models taken at the Chateau, and even Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (2). SOMEWHERE— financed by Focus Features and produced by Coppola, her brother Roman, G. Mac Brown, and her father’s American Zoetrope studios– is especially unique within her filmography in that it is the first that follows a male protagonist: a burned-out film actor named Johnny Marco. Played with effortless shabby-chic nuance by underrated character actor Stephen Dorff in a role written specifically for him, Marco is an artist who has lost sight of his art (1). He’s marooned within the Chateau, bogged down in the boring, everyday business of acting: being shuttled around to promo shoots and press conferences, attending vapid awards shows in glamorous locales like Italy and Las Vegas, and navigating the endless, snaking boulevards of Beverly Hills in his exotic (yet unreliable) sports car. The only thing that seems to bring a sense of life into his eyes is the sight of his daughter Cleo, played by Elle Fanning as an ephemeral and precocious little sprite who flits in and out of his life with little warning. SOMEWHERE’s key narrative turns hinge on this delicate relationship between a father and his daughter, observing how their limited time together helps the other mature into a more self-realized person. This being a portrait of Hollywood, Coppola also peppers the film with several winking cameos by other famous faces, like THE OFFICE’s Ellie Kemper as Johnny’s eager publicist, Michelle Monaghan as his acid-tongued co-star, JACKASS crew-member Chris Pontius as his one-man entourage, and Benicio Del Toro as an incognito version of himself.
SOMEWHERE’s cinematography befits its simple narrative approach, adopting an observational, rough-edged aesthetic that makes inspired use of old lenses from Francis Ford Coppola’s RUMBLE FISH (1983) shoot to imbue the 1.85:1 35mm film frame with a timeless, vintage aura (1). One of the last films lensed by the late cinematographer Harris Savides, SOMEWHERE revels in the long take, mixing and matching between the formalism of locked-off slow zooms and the immediacy of handheld shots. Savides was a master of harnessing soft and natural light, and SOMEWHERE stands as a testament to his abilities in that regard while reinforcing Coppola’s own established aesthetic. SOMEWHERE contrasts MARIE ANTOINETTE’s vibrant palette of candy-coated hues with a muted color scheme that deals in creamy neutrals and rosy highlights. The film’s opening shot– a long static composition of Marco’s sports car speeding around a closed loop– establishes the elliptical nature of Coppola’s storyline, reinforced by returning editor Sarah Flack’s patient pacing and oblique assembly of key dramatic moments. As in her previous films, Coppola uses music to striking effect, creating a soundscape where well-worn Top 40 hits are primarily heard as a diegetic element that reflects the cultural idea of what constitutes a “Hollywood Lifestyle”. Coppola deviates from this approach only once, laying Julian Casablancas’ mellow track “I’ll Try Anything Once” over a sequence of Marco and his daughter enjoying a fleeting moment of happiness and connection in the hotel pool. The effect is a subtle, yet transcendent moment for the audience as well as the characters. Coppola unifies her disparate musical elements with an ethereal electronic score by French pop band Phoenix (of which her husband, Thomas Mars, is the frontman; continuing the long Coppola family tradition of artistic collaboration with other members).
SOMEWHERE contains many of the surface elements of Coppola’s established thematic signatures– autobiography, the fashion world, celebrity lifestyles, and the feminine mystique– but it also expands on them in interesting and insightful ways that show Coppola’s growth as a mature artist. Her decision to make her protagonist a man throws her longtime examination of womanhood into sharp relief, casting each female character on either side of the male gaze, assigned a corresponding value between sexual appeal and innocence. SOMEWHERE predicates its main narrative thrust on the paper-thin conflict between Marco and his self-doubt, or the tension between himself and the expectations of others from both his professional and personal life. However, where Coppola’s film really resonates is in the dichotomy of the roles that women play in his life. As a rich and successful movie star living in a glamorous Hollywood hotel, Marco is surrounded by beautiful women that serve as all-too-willing sexual playthings. The women of the Chateau are so sexually adventurous that he merely needs to flash a smile for them to jump into bed with him. As a father to a young girl, however, he has to reconcile the carnal aspects of himself with the responsibilities of raising someone who will one day be a woman too, complete with a self-realized sexuality of her own. Marco’s interactions with his daughter are geared towards preserving the innocence of childhood amidst the wanton hedonism of his lifestyle, but in trying to protect her purity he also denies her a fundamental aspect of her emerging humanity. The major breakthrough in their relationship comes when he directly acknowledges the complicated nature of adult life (signified by the failed relationship between him and her mother)– an act that requires him to view Cleo as not just his young daughter, but as an intellectual equal and a mini-adult in her own right.
SOMEWHERE’s secondary thematic exploration concerns the lifestyles of the rich and famous, a constant presence throughout Coppola’s work. Like LOST IN TRANSLATION, SOMEWHERE follows a once-successful actor on the downslope of his career, but whereas the former’s exotic Tokyo setting hinted at a vibrant, sprawling world just waiting to be discovered, the latter’s depiction of sunny LA feels confining– twisted into a kind of limbo that only resembles paradise; purgatory with a pool. As suggested in the aforementioned opening shot, Marco’s life is something of a closed loop: he wakes up every morning late for some photo shoot or promo event he forgot about, spends the afternoon driving around aimlessly, and then drinks himself stupid to the lullaby of two blondes’ pole-dancing his hotel room… all so he can wake up the next day and do it all over again. Even when he’s high up in the air, surveying the city below in one of Coppola’s signature backseat reverie shots, he’s still confined within a cramped helicopter cabin. Over the course of its running time, SOMEWHERE slowly shows how Marco’s connection to his daughter allows him to break out of his personal purgatory, evidenced via the closing shot that shows Marco abandoning his sports car (and thus the closed loop) altogether– setting out on foot towards an uncertain, but invigorating future.
After the gilded extravagance of MARIE ANTOINETTE, SOMEWHERE marks a return to the minimalistic form that defined LOST IN TRANSLATION. However, the film didn’t experience the same warm reception enjoyed by its predecessor. Critics mostly responded to the film with a tempered positivity, but those with a negative reaction felt very strongly about its perceived failings. Those already predisposed to blast Coppola for her artistic indulgences were given even more fuel for the fire, citing SOMEWHERE as her most irrelevant and empty exercise to date. Even its biggest critical win– the prestigious Golden Lion award for Best Picture at the Venice Film Festival– came under heavy criticism due to the fact that Quentin Tarantino, who once was romantically linked to Coppola, had championed the film in his capacity as the jury chairman. This episode is a particularly unfortunate one in the annals of film criticism, in that it reinforces the deeply-entrenched marginalization of female directors by suggesting that her win only happened because of her relationship to a man, and not because of her own artistic abilities. That being said, SOMEWHERE isn’t a particularly easy film to love; it refuses to traffick in digestible conflict or play into audience expectations. Scant as its story may be, the film is nonetheless a sublime love letter to a unique refuge within LA’s sprawling megalopolis, crafted with sensitivity and subtlety by a confident artistic voice without compromise. Of all the films in Coppola’s career, SOMEWHERE provides the most profound and intimate insights into her unique character, allowing us to look past the glitz and glamor to find the complicated, brooding soul deep inside.
SOMEWHERE is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Universal.
Written by: Sofia Coppola
Produced by: Sofia Coppola, Roman Coppola, G. Mac Brown
Director Of Photography: Harris Savides
Production Designer: Anne Ross
Edited by: Sarah Flack
Music by: Phoenix
- IMDB Trivia Page
- Via Wikipedia: Lim, Dennis It’s What She Knows: The Luxe Life The New York Times, December 10, 2010