Pretty things get a bum rep. They often get written off as being “merely pretty” – that is, inconsequential and frivolous. It’s ironic that such criticism often comes from within artistic circles (as well as crack-smoking, self-proclaimed arts journalists), since the art world itself has been long regarded by the public as being an insulated and self-indulgent community that produces work of little or no “public value”; as Representative Jack Kingston of Georgia said way back in 2009, “I just think putting people to work is more important than putting more art on the wall of some New York City gallery frequented by the elite art community.” You’d think, then, that people would be more hesitant to write off “pretty” stuff as less weighty than the more ostensibly “gritty” work populating cineplexes and art galleries all over the world. But alas, that is not the case.
Sofia Coppola has always had to deal with criticisms that her work verges on the solipsistic and reeks of the privilege inherent in her upbringing. Doing so, however, denies the sheer beauty of a film like Somewhere and discounts this thoughtful and quietly brilliant film’s formal audacity. The film’s first shot consists of a black Mustang driving in circles. We don’t see the car make its full loop; it keeps rushing in and out of the frame. The camera remains stationary and the car makes a few too many loops for the shot to have any semblance of plot progression to it. Right off the bat, we’re presented with an image as opposed to a story, a mood as opposed to a blatant “message”. Long takes are hardly anything new, but Coppola’s usage of them in Somewhere is remarkable. She lingers on her subjects for extended periods of time; the effect is interminable at first, then slowly pushes one into a state of introspection. In this way, Coppola allows her audience to fully understand her characters, not through paragraphs of dialogue or by asking us to feel sorry for them, but by simply presenting them as they are, with their flaws and contradictions on full display.
The characters of Somewhere are, as is par for the course with Coppola, attractive and well-to-do types, which has prompted some criticism that the film is somehow “out of touch” with reality and thus isn’t engaging enough. But even if you aren’t a fairly well-established film star like Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) or, uh, the daughter of a fairly well-established film star like Cleo Marco (Elle Fanning), it’s possible to relate to the feelings of alienation, ennui, and love that permeate nearly every frame of the film. Coppola humanizes her characters beautifully through her use of light, her flair for expressive compositions, and her eye (and ear!) for detail. The delicacy with which Cleo prepares breakfast for her father says more about this charming and enigmatic character than any traditional exposition ever could; the tap and clatter of silverware, without the presence of a traditional soundtrack, seem almost amplified and subtly emphasize the fragility of her relationship with her father. And throughout, Coppola returns to the theme of displacement from which the film gets its title; using a hotel as a backdrop is a fairly obvious way of capturing the feeling of loneliness in a very public place, but Coppola also uses travel as a means to express this idea. Johnny seems as comfortable driving in his sports car as he does when lounging in his hotel room at West Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont, and when he travels to Italy with Cleo, their hotel suite feels just as much like home as anyplace else.
All of which makes those rare instances where Coppola does write more emotionally overwrought dialogue more surprising and, for the most part, relatively effective. Johnny’s character arc, as performed with gruff charm by Stephen Dorff, would be clear even without the traditional outpouring of feelings, but that doesn’t make his admission of “I’m fucking nothing, not even a person,” any less affecting. Even better is the hilariously deadpan response he gets from Cleo’s mother: “Well, why don’t you try volunteering or something?” It’s largely due to Dorff’s excellent performance that this scene comes across less as a ploy for the audience’s affection and more a genuine moment of release. But it’s the more abstract, nearly wordless moments – Johnny falling asleep during cunnilingus, Johnny observing a calisthenic pole-dance routine, Cleo giving her father a pointed look during breakfast after he indulges a female visitor in the middle of the night – that really drive Somehwere forward and stick with you long afterwards.
Because it’s these images that so effectively capture the disconnect between the public’s insatiable appetite for celebrities and the actual people behind those million-dollar façades, that show the aspect of fame that few films dare touch on. It’s these images that show just how far removed we become from ourselves. It’s these images that dig deep into our everyday lives and make Johnny’s journey so much more profound than your average Hollywood tale, or hell, any other film about a person forced to reevaluate themselves upon discovering meaningful human relationships. Yes, Somewhere is a very, very pretty film. But it’s also brutally honest. And that’s anything but a cinematic petit four.