Somewhere (2010, Sofia Coppola)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Let’s hear it for films that can’t be defined or reduced to plot summaries; ask someone to tell you what Somewhere is about and the answer is unlikely to pique your interest — a wealthy actor afflicted with a continual malaise has his life temporarily complicated by an extended visit from his eleven year-old daughter. What reason can the average movie audience possibly have to respond to or participate in a story that overflows with the suggestion of broad privilege, directed by a woman who for many (unfairly) exemplifies the insular nepotism of Hollywood? The answer is that you don’t have to see yourself or any fantastic variation on yourself in this story to feel intense contact with and response to its emotions, which are pure and raw and a testament to the growing and inevitable realization that Sofia Coppola is one of our greatest working filmmakers and a potential giant of the form. With her fourth straight near-masterpiece, she’s crafted a true sensory experience that speaks from the heart in a thrillingly unvarnished, unabashed way. It’s simultaneously a freer and younger film than her previous efforts and her most mature work to date. It’s also one of the best films of the last several years.

By now, those who were throttled by Coppola’s breakthrough Lost in Translation and pathetically underappreciated Marie Antoinette are likely prepared for the defiantly uncommercial moviemaking that seems to be her calling, and she may be the most idiosyncratic young director who’s managed to remain this long on the fringe of the mainstream. Somewhere is, in her words, like a poem — and she’s not drenching herself in egomania to say that, it’s the truth. The film is brief and vague, wallowing in an ambiance of moments — in a more subjective and cinematic fashion than Translation. Individual scenes stretch to encompass the totality of an experience (in contrast to Marie Antoinette, which cut rapidly between events in the manner of Terrence Malick’s recent work) and challenge the idea of a “point.” Watching pole-dancers jig to the Foo Fighters for a full four minutes might seem like an overstatement of a rather basic idea — that sex is so free to the celebrity (Stephen Dorff) as to become dull — but the cumulative impact means everything, the thorough ingratiation we experience with the hollowness and dispirit of this man Johnny’s life. There’s no “point” because everything is the point: the repetition, the slowness, the mildly surreal sense of displacement. During the lengthy driving sequences, traversing across the hills of California in day and night, we feel with utter precision the pangs of liberation, the need to break free.

And we feel the uncomfortable, tentative and never fully resolved bond of a father and daughter. The performances of Dorff and Elle Fanning are stunningly felt, impressive, unforced; without ever sharing Coppola’s own experience of a show business father, the uneasy connection and frustrated love becomes ours. She pointed quite rightfully to Paper Moon as a reference point in capturing the duo’s strange and not always entirely pleasant alliance, but she’s correct to omit that film’s final catharsis. The reunion, sweet and bickering, was necessary in Peter Bogdanovich’s film, but when Dorff expresses here to his beautiful and patient daughter Cleo just after she finally breaks down crying (in the film’s sole explicit such note, fully earned) that he’s sorry he hasn’t been “around more,” we don’t truly believe him. Yet the story is his, and we find a way to empathize with the strange disconnect in which he operates, for Coppola gives us so much to recognize; as in Marie Antoinette, she presents a kind of chemical solidarity of people wholly separate from cultural lines. In this character study that finally documents a desperation, a terminal blank emptiness, and what amounts to a depressive breakdown, we ultimately see Johnny as a human fucked up in the same way we all are, not fucked up in some special L.A. manner.

For this is a man that has everything, and those seeking some great epiphany at the third act that a closeness to his daughter (who indeed provides his only happy moments in the film) is the thing that’s “missing” won’t find it; the film is less about some great transformation than about something so simple as the realization that one is leading his life in a way that’s making him unhappy — but still, by the conclusion, being unclear about the source of that apathy. Put simply: knowing something’s wrong and not knowing why, an experience that virtually every human being can experience as a vessel, which is one reason this film becomes so sweeping, knowing, and effectively personal an experience. Great as the performances are, Coppola has also defined her characters with a kind of all too rare ease and perfection. From Cleo’s perspective, brilliantly captured with spark and wisdom beyond her years by Fanning, the aloof father is a fact of life and a center of palpably unconditional love — the sort of classical redemption so many narratives make sure to offer — but from she more so than he. There’s no explosion of sentimentality to seal the vague discomfort in their relationship, and the film is stronger and more real for that.

Ultimately, this is purely a character study, and a profoundly sophisticated one. Johnny is inundated with the ridiculous availability of sex — but he also seldom turns it down, indeed never seems to unless it places his daughter in a compromising position, and sometimes even then. Somewhere, via Fanning’s performance, casts a critical eye on his parenting but also forgives the powerful, lost man, as well it should, for the fact that the traces of a more complete world he glimpses within his days with Cleo cannot be enough for him, that his promiscuity and success are in themselves not the sources of his deep discontent, merely symptoms and contributors. For a child, a daughter, can be many things — but it would be unfair to burden Cleo with the responsibility of “repairing” her father, and it’s wise of the character and film to steer far afield of such a conclusion. That hint of melancholy and an unbridgeable gap — of this, lazy days lounging by a pool, being the closest they ever are — only serves to make the film more moving.

Dorff’s performance is a really wonderful instance of “negative acting”; we’re completely aware of his increasing consciousness that, to borrow a somewhat psychobabbly phrase, “something is missing” without any explicit statement or convenient expression as such. His first open display of grief comes near the end, and though some will have problems with the odd sideways smile we glimpse in the final shot, the tears he sheds seem earned and real. Fascinatingly, one of his best acting moments comes when his face is entirely invisible to us, as for special effects purposes he undergoes an extensive makeup treatment with a mold cast of his face and is in perfect darkness, separated from us by thickened tape in a Twilight Zone fashion — and it’s the perfect outward expression of his world, but also an objective depiction of the prattling on of routine for all our own misfit internal strangeness.

The ending is somewhat confusing and open-ended; most will expect it to be leading, again, to the Paper Moon-styled finale, but it doesn’t. Initially I felt the final act of pulling over an expensive car on the side of the road and wandering into the desert was a little too M. Scott Peck or art-film pat. Reflecting more, it seems to me less a redemption than a collapse: the lowest point of despair, but also potentially (by no means definitely) the start of a hopeful awakening, a wallowing in some distant unfamiliar place for the sake of itself and its distance, rather than any metaphysical notion of clearing the mind. There’s no reason not to believe that within a few minutes Johnny will return to that car and keep driving. But there’s also no need for us to really know that he actually does that; what’s relevant to us is the open-spaced desperation, the fear that it’s already too late, the need to express some defiant move forward the only way a movie star knows how: like they would in the movies. It’s a grand movement that may prove as dead and pointless as anything, but he feels in this instant that it’s something.

Coppola would probably sigh upon hearing this but by design or not, she’s fashioned a loose trilogy that covers a backward chronology. If Lost in Translation captures a woman’s early adulthood, Marie Antoinette her adolescence, this film knowingly captures her childhood — already, the heavy emotional burden shouldered by the teenager and young married woman in the other two films is beginning to take hold here. But the parallels to Lost in Translation are wise because of the similarity in Stephen Dorff’s Johnny to both the Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson characters of that film, suggesting a broader suspicion of conventional “maturity.” Coppola’s presenting to us a portrait of growing up and the staid realities of adulthood either as cautionary or as carefully observant, lyrical cry in the dark. It’s difficult to say if the story of Somewhere is finally a bit more hopeful than that of Lost in Translation, which though far more romantic is less layered and complex in its treatment of human relationships and communication. I tend to think the close of Somewhere is a tacit, slightly coy acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe there’s a way out of this. Whether that’s my own injection or not, this is an extraordinarily rich film, the best new-ish movie I’ve seen since Melancholia, and I must openly request that you see it and stick with it and let it wash over you in a beautiful overwhelming fashion.

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