Sunday, January 9, 2011

No Direction Home: Sofia Coppola's Somewhere

Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning in Somewhere
In the opening moments of Sofia Coppola's new film, Somewhere, action star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) either spends his days and nights in L.A.'s famous Chateau Marmont just going through the motions (or driving his Ferrari – literally – in circles). As Coppola documents Marco's redundant daily routines of parties and strippers, the picture appears to be going through the motions as well. With Somewhere seemingly going nowhere, I was tempted to bail. Luckily, I didn't. For when Marco's ex-wife suddenly unloads their 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), on his doorstep, Marco awakens from his stupor and so does the movie. Somewhere turns into an affecting story of a father and daughter in the process of discovering each other and it has a bittersweet fragrance that lingers long after you leave the theatre.

Unlike most directors, Coppola isn't driven by the conventions of narrative and plot. She has a keen interest instead in developing the story through a depiction of moods and unformed emotions. She feels her way through Somewhere as if trying to form a psychic communication with her actors as they stumble upon states of mind they didn't anticipate encountering. In Lost in Translation (2003), where Bill Murray played an actor cast adrift in Japan who then finds his bearings through a young American soul-mate (Scarlett Johansson), Coppola allowed that movie to reach its own equilibrium rather than impose stability on it. She does the same thing here. As Johnny and Cleo go through an itinerary of activities – from her skating class to their quick trip to Milan to attend a glitzy award show – Somewhere focuses on the emotional undercurrents of those moments as they morph into one another. She allows the viewer the opportunity to observe how Johnny and Cleo begin to connect to each other. Dorff, a remarkably self-effacing actor, plays Marco as a man who has no sense of how to be a father. Thankfully, the movie isn't out to redeem that part of him. Somewhere slowly illustrates that, through Marco's innate sense of decency coupled with his unresolved regrets for not being the father he could have been, he is able to discover new tentative ground in which to relate to her.

Elle Fanning

Elle Fanning's performance is singularly touching. Cleo is knowing without being self-consciously precocious. It's clear that both her folks have been more like children than adults in her life, so she parents herself (as well as them). But Somewhere lets us see how she's also learned how to read them, in all their bad habits, while getting whatever attention she can. Cleo's need for connection though is as equally strong as Johnny's which provides the emotional current that rides under the sad pining of this film. Whether playing Guitar Hero together, or sharing gelato in Milan, Cleo and Johnny connect only in those fleeting moments, moments which become abruptly lost. Coppola lets the transience of those states permeate the story so that we become moved in ways beyond words. 

Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola is unusually gifted. When she tried to do conventional narrative, as in her debut, The Virgin Suicides (1999), or Marie Antoinette (2006), the follow-up to Lost in Translation, her intuitive powers became so blocked by the plot conventions that the movies themselves evaporated in the memory. Unlike her father, Francis Ford Coppola, who could give operatic power to conventional narrative in The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II, she could only provide artful touches with little dramatic resonance. (Curiously, when her father reached outside convention in pictures like One From the Heart and Rumble Fish, his movies ended up drowning in poetic ersatz.)

While the atmosphere of Somewhere is nowhere near as exotic as Lost in Translation, the examination of dissolute people with no direction home is equally powerful and rewarding. Sofia Coppola's elliptical approach to melancholy, regret and alienation in Somewhere is surprisingly stirring. She's like Michelangelo Antonioni with a soul.

 – Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir at the Revue Cinema in Toronto.


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