Everybody Knows This Is Probably Nowhere: Sofia Coppola's "Somewhere"

Hey, kids! Want critics to compare your movie to one by that old dead Italian guy Mike Antonioni? Well, it's easy. Just include a shot in which your lead character smokes a cigarette down to its filter, preferably by him or her self, and preferably without saying a word to anybody else, and the Antonioni comparisons will beat a path to your door!

Facetiousness aside for the moment, the Antonioni comparisons that have met Sofia Coppola's new feature Somewhere indicate that more than a few people out there still don't, if you'll forgive the term, "get" Antonioni. Yes, the man's films contained many shots of lonely, existentially anxious people, many of them male, smoking cigarettes, but I can't think of a one that contains a single lengthy take of a lone male just sitting and finishing and stubbing out a cancer stick, as Somewhere does. There's at least one Bela Tarr picture out there that I believe contains such a shot. But that's a Bela Tarr picture, is the point. Anyway, I've also seen Somewhere compared to an Antonioni film on account of "nothing" "happens" in it. While Somewhere is indeed not exactly fraught with incident, or plot for that matter, again we encounter some misapprehension of Antonioni. Okay, L'eclisse and Red Desert aren't exactly Inception, but Blow-upand The Passenger? I defy you to provide single-sentence summaries of those numbers.

The more salient point is that for whatever influences Coppola has absorbed (and she seems to continue to look, and learn; there's a bit here with twin pole dancers that looked and felt to me as if it could have come out of her own brother Roman's comic-surreal CQ, which is more of a [very knowing and self-aware] pastiche piece than anything Sofia's ever done), her cinematic mode has always been rather assuredly her own, and one of the pleasures of Somewhere is how supple her camera stylo, such as it is, writes. The cinematographer is Harris Savides, following up Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, which, like this film, is "about" certain more or less privileged lives in Los Angeles and/or Hollywood. Both are handsome films whose looks are defined not only by Savides' skill but by directorial signatures. It seems that for Greenberg Savides was asked to capture every floating dust mote refracted through the sun of the California near-desert; in Somewhere, the interiors of the Chateau Marmont, wherein aimless, debauched actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) holes up, avoiding both work and emotional connection, seem, atmosphere-wise at least, as antiseptic as factory clean rooms. Within these closed-off spaces, Coppola shifts between stationary and unobtrusively hand-held cameras with maximum ease and minimal self-consciousness; if the camera is by definition a voyeur, in Coppola's hands its a very discreet and well-mannered one. Its equanimity makes one's response to the film's ostensible climax a more complex one that it might have been otherwise. After a series of privileged moments with his pre-adolescent daughter (a very good and unaffected Elle Fanning), the product of a ruined relationship, and less meaningful encounters with ex-lovers, quasi-groupies, and other manner of human flotsam and jetsam that attends the existence of a perhaps fading Hollywood golden boy, Marco has an emotional breakdown. Over the phone, of course. "I'm not even a person," he sputters. One does feel rather bad for him, but one's heart doesn't exactly go out to him; one reason he's not a person is that he doesn't have any people, so to speak, around him. His daughter Cleo is an inchoate person, and as much as he admires her—that is the proper term for his regard for her, really—she is still an inchoate person. And it's not that Johnny has cut himself off from a fully-formed human beings. It's more that maybe he could not actually find them if he tried. This makes Somewhere into a horror film of sorts. In a more conventional picture Johnny's epiphany would see him dutifully reporting to rehab. But rehab suggests that recovery is possible. The film's elliptical ending suggests that Johnny's actual condition may be incurable.

If Coppola's films' do have something in common with Antonioni's, it's in the depiction of the brittleness of adult emotional life in a time and milieu in which, as the director put it over 50 years ago, "Eros is sick." For all that, and for all the above, Coppola seems a somewhat more optimistic filmmaker. In her unobtrusive way she's always seeking out the tendresse beneath Johnny's cool surface. And she has no trouble finding that quality in Cleo. In Red Desert, the child ails almost as much as his mother, or maybe he puts on his condition; in the film's scheme of things it doesn't make much of a difference. In Somewherethe child not only has health but seeks it, keeps going in its direction; and the adult cannot follow. There's a part of me that resists a wholehearted embrace of this picture because of what I see as its essentially anecdotal nature; but the more I think about it, the more I come around to it. It's what you might call a grower.

Also, in case you were wondering if the Marmont really was all that in terms of bad-boy facilitating, I can vouch. I remember the first time I stayed there, back in 1998, checking in at something like two in the morning (my flight got in late), and in a couch in the corner of a foyer that I idly wandered into while getting registered, there was a Hollywood "It" boy of no small fame and underground at-least-bi reputation receiving fellatio from a pretty much unimpeachably female blonde. "Whoa!' I almost exclaimed as I staggered back to the lobby desk. Coppola's film almost effortlessly captures the unstuck-in-time appeal of the place; the seeming old-world gentility of the decor is a fascinating juxtaposition with the anything goes ethos it seems to embody. As if it is not a real place at all.

Responses

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  • HEDONIST

    Great work. Thanks.

  • HEDONIST

    typo?

    *And it’s not that Johnny has cut himself off from a fully-formed human beings.

    all fully-formed?

  • Glenn Kenny

    No, actually it’s the prose version of my Super Mario Brothers fake Italian accent, as in “Hey, I’m-a pretty depressed!”

    Okay, yeah, it’s a typo.

  • todd mulligan

    this film sounds fascinating. i had just gotten done reading the collected works of joan didion and was kind of in a slump ambling around my home with it’s old world charm and what have you. then i stumbled onto the veranda. it was then it hit me..seemingly all at once….i need more vacuity in my life! can’t ever have enough vacuity… I then found this piece and as if that didn’t satiate me enough(didn’t realize it was about a film at first) i now have this film to look forward to. this film could be the story of my life. i too am a little decadent and lost(although i never participate in bisexuality) finding only emptiness in the partying and craven pleasure seeking i induldge myself in…it’s hard for me to connect…i have ennui a lot of it and did some acting in high school. i hope sophia really nailed it like you say because this is a story that needs to be told!

  • Josh Ralske

    Very good review, Glenn. How dare you force me to interrogate my own much less enthusiastic response to the film?

  • Tim Jackson

    Anytime I see, for instance, The Antonioni’s Passenger, I experience it differently or seem to ‘get it’ in a new way. Like Coppola, story is secondary to ideas about identity and a character’s relationship to a sense of place. Copolla’s painterly compositions, a beautiful stillness, and minimalist style are a means to a remarkable end. We are invited to emotionally complete each scene. Every vignette is part and poetry of a subtle emotional puzzle. Johnny Marco needs one thing and that’s love. And love without reservation is the love for your own child. He’s got fame, wealth, attention, talent, and this beautiful intelligent daughter. The lingering camera isn’t so much a voyeur as it allows the audience to savor certain moments. By avoiding the usual conflicts to which a scene might ordinarily build, we ‘complete’ the scene empathetically. The director creates both strange and personal scenes that are achingly incomplete. Dorff’s Johnny is a decent guy immersed in the unreal world of fame, fortune, and LA. His perfect performance is of an artist slightly debauched but filled with kindness and understanding. Together Fanning’s subtle and utterly real behavior, the film becomes emotionally devastating and I found myself weeping at the most unexpected times (don’t tell anyone). This was the best film I’ve seen this year, in a year of some great movies.

  • todd mulligan

    dreck

  • James E

    Mr. Mulligan, care to elaborate on that assertion?

  • todd mulligan

    Not really. i was dragged to this film and it didn’t really stimulate any thought in me except a sort of naseua …but if i had to elaborate…and mind you I’m not much of film critic or film theorist i would say my main problem with it without veering into a disscussion about the priveledged daughters of hollywood directors would be that it relies on the same vacuity it seems to be critiquing…it seems very impressed with the marmont, pretty pictures and representations of a decadent lifestyle. in fact i think it’s telling that most reviews of it end up relying on commentary on just that kind of thing how pretty elle fanning is, how accurately the marmont was represented (i know it was tongue and cheek) and how bad boy facillitating it is, how lonely and isolating and beautiful the photography was and how ingenious the two dancers on the pole were…and really why not? if you took all that away you wouldn’t really have anything. still i saw a three minute interview with dorf about the film and in those three minutes he seemed far more pathological to me than anything i saw in the entire film. if johnny marco is such a decent guy…then what’s the problem. that la is vacuous? no surprise there! i think that coppolla’s problem is that she’s so steeped in film and art talk that what you get is some sort of hazy fleshing out of the idea to show it how it really is…or comment on emptiness…or something maybe she interpreted the greats as doing and you get kind of a watering down or a really slow redeployment of their tricks. it’s just to damn convienant i think for a filmmaker to get a couple of actors together who hardly know each other and then proclaim that their lack of bond with each other or acting chops was what she was after in the first place…in the name of some alienating feeling. i think that’s garbage. enough with the grand romance of alienation…seriously. i’m not saying coppolla is incapable because she’s who she is of making a solid film but she probably won’t. hell she probably has a pretty inside track on the waythings like nepotism and the constant need to be hip and with it affect everyone involved. these are very real things and i’d be interested in seeing a sensitive film revolving on that but 9 or 10 dollars is a lot of money these days and there’s passionate people in the world, starving people and some very very screwed up people…i’d rather see a movie about them

  • Glenn Kenny

    “Not really” followed by 400-plus words, that’s funny. My suggestion to Mr. Mulligan is that he be a little more forceful with respect to not allowing himself to be dragged to see films he does not want to see. Seriously.

  • Unkle Rusty

    Nice blind item there, Glenn. Was it Ben Affleck?

  • Glenn Kenny

    Unkle Rusty: No, it was not. As with all good blind items, mine actually includes a not-entirely hidden clue as to the lucky fellow’s identity in the telling. In this case I almost think it’s too obvious, but what do I know…

  • Lemmiwinks

    Has to be Keanu Reeves…

  • Unkle Rusty

    Ah, yes, the “Whoa.” Slapping self in forehead. Brilliant.

  • Unkle Rusty

    Oh, and love the Andy Sarris homage, too: Mike Antonioni.

  • Glenn Kenny

    Thanks. I try.

  • James E

    Thank you for that elaboration, Mr. Mulligan. It was rather more enlightening than “dreck.”

  • nathaniel charles sexton

    mulligan, i appreciate and actually sympathize quite a lot with what you’re saying, but i think perhaps there is a humanity in this that transcends class (which as a cynic, i would normally resist). although i was not expecting to much like this film, i must admit that i felt a tenderness in the father, daughter relationship that was softly inspiring albeit a little sad. and, yes, perhaps some commentators are committing a mistake by focusing on the bourgeois decadence found in much of its photography - but, that does not mean that such decadence is all that the film offers, visually or otherwise. the two playing table tennis, although brief, felt very common to me, the wii is assuredly pop culture, proletariat, underneath the water in the swimming pool, guitar heroism, listening to the folk song in the lobby, etc. and, the discussion on the banality of movie stardom may actually suggest something larger about the value and legitimacy of celebrity in the first place. part of our protagonist’s lack of worth is in a public which mistakes him for someone else, someone that he performs at the expense of truly exploring himself. and, if all the world is truly a stage, this is a situation in exaggeration and literalism that can be extrapolated for all of us. it’s easy to feel we have lost ourselves between notions of a private and public self. and, in many ways, i feel this is what this film is about. in this way, it can be very relatable - even if we don’t have sports cars and are ruggedly good-looking.

  • todd mulligan

    ah yes…trancending class…that’s something we all aspire to. with this in mind let me clarify myself. my problem was not that dorffs character was rich or priveledged or even ruggedly good looking and yet the burden would be on me to somehow prove that i guess. i won’t. but i will say in any case my problem and what blocked me i think from taking the leap with this one mainly was the extreme passivity of the character which made it very difficult for me to accept him as thouroughly human throughout. that’s something you see in films these days oddly from all strata. the film for me in that respect was premised on some very ethically lazy and fallacious constructs and i saw the utilization of the marmont contrary to many people opinions as instrumental in these assumptions and therefore easy and not quite as ingenious as everyone seems to think. first off…and this may be nitpicking but i think it’s important only when one takes into account the nature of what’s being written on the film…no one gets to where dorffs character is however paltry without courting it a bit. why lie? not talking about class here but rather having a career in anything from the manager of a fast food joint to head of a bank is no different. i liked what you said regarding public and personal presentation…i’m willing to take the leap with any character that i feel is stand up enough to have at least have had a hand in creating there own problems…that’s human… but not if said character is held out to me as some sort of apologia. if in fact this is a film about persona than yes that is something i think many including myself can relate to…however i would prefer that the film in question pitches such an examination at somewhere a little more higher pitched emotionally than if a daughter gets her feelings hurt or the stakes hold a little more worth than a few cute routines in a pool or sighs…which seems like a big cop out. try life or death. nothing really much needs to happen there either it’s probably just a qustion of temperment. that at least would allow me to suspend my own judgement as to whether or not said filmmaker was qualified to comment on this. i felt like if anything class was an issue for coppolla…it has been in at least a few of her films and she should go all the way then and not talk down like she does. i didn’t tell her to make the films she does she chooses too. dorffs character in any event was just too damn likeable…nobody not a b level hollywood actor or a guy on the street is that easy…even if they are easy for a living the fight and aggression comes out somewhere else….maybe that’s why they persue decadence so aggressively but coppolla for her part seems to thouroughly miss that in lieu of getting the material over. he’ disinterested. she also relies on a star system mentality that has her depicting all outside characters as simply funtionaries to make some point that stardom is boring and paltry and lonely and having daughters is important but nowhere in this film were these poses or attitudes really examined anywhere outside the context of a dream . class exists to be sure but escapism trancends class as well and that’s what i thought the film was. when we cared intensly about things like if our daughters would grow up to be wenches or that if we called ourselves artists we had a responsibility not to sell out there was real possibilty of tragedy…with this film only a possibilty of a sort of sweet sad vagarity….when there were actual people outside the marmont there was also possibilty of disovery…of morality….that the character might come off as reprehensible….it’s not that there aren’t people outside it’s just that i felt coppolla wasn’t really prepared to leave the hotel. allthough she seemed a little more aggressive in her will for escapism than any character she was able to create i thought the film therefore failed. i don’t dislike coppolla as a matter of rule…in fact i thought she was the most interesting part of godfather 3 and has an interesting demeanor but as a filmmaker i just don’t like it. i left my house with 12dollars in my pocket and really wanted to see another year or blue valentine and was pretty bummed that i didn’t go to either of those. i will not make that mistake ever again

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