“Somewhere”: Sofia Coppola’s Quiet Masterpiece

January 4, 2011 § 1 Comment

Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning in "Somewhere"/Courtesy Focus Features

Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is a movie star between shoots who is living in a suite at the Chateau Marmont, the Sunset Strip hotel/Young Hollywood clubhouse. Even before he stumbles down the staircase and breaks his arm, Johnny is adrift, a rudderless boat on a sea of celebrity. He deals with his considerable fame not boorishly, as one might expect, but with a politeness so stifling he can barely speak. When the world intrudes, whether by press conference, photo shoot or angry text message from some woman he has spurned, Johnny’s reaction invariably is bafflement, as if he can’t quite make the pieces of the puzzle fit. 

Johnny’s fame-induced passivity is reinforced by the Chateau, which provides effortless access to food, sex and novelty. With his arm in a cast, he smiles courteously as adorable twin pole dancers perform the most unerotic routine imaginable–one that puts him to sleep. Boredom, painkillers and alcohol are pushing Johnny into catatonia when his daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), arrives one morning and literally wakes him up.

Until that point, the film has been almost free of dialogue, a beautiful dream of small events and arresting images. Now, with Cleo present, the story gains momentum. Though Johnny and Cleo haven’t spent much time together, they obviously love one another and feel comfortable in each other’s presence. Dorff and Fanning have a lovely chemistry, the kind that allows them to communicate with the smallest of gestures–a glance here, an arched eyebrow there. When they do speak, their words are spare and natural, with none of the talky contrivances of family dramas. It helps that, in a feat of casting, they actually look like father and daughter, with astonishingly similar facial features and coloring.

On that first day, Johnny watches Cleo expertly perform an ice skating routine, a talent he knew nothing about. (Presumably, the three years she has been skating have coincided with his rise to fame.) After Cleo goes home, Johnny returns to the Chateau for more of the same: easy sex, partying and occasional work obligations. After a press conference where he is unable to answer the question, “Who is Johnny Marco,” Johnny is required to sit motionless for a special effects mask–40 minutes with his head covered in plaster.  It’s an effective metaphor for his current existence, and probably his future.

Fortunately, Cleo soon returns, courtesy of a maternal time-out, and breaks through Johnny’s armor. They plays Guitar Hero, go on a press junket to Milan, swim and shop for summer camp. Cleo cooks for him and his friend Sammy. By the time Johnny drops her off at camp, he has become a father–albeit one who shouts, “Sorry I haven’t been around,” while standing next to a  helicopter that drowns out his words. But he has awakened to the emptiness of his life and decides to make a change.

As others have noted, Coppola’s films owe more to European and Asian cinema than to American movies. “Somewhere,” which clocks in at 86 minutes, has only a 40-page script and at times resembles a silent film. Things happen, but much as they do in real life: as a series of events rather than a single big one. Those who think movies should have three acts, neatly tied-up plot lines and lots of action invariably find Coppola’s work slow and enigmatic. But “Somewhere,” which represents a quantum leap from her previous films, contains more beauty and emotional depth than any movie I’ve seen in the past year. It is a work of genius, one I thought about for days afterwards and couldn’t wait to see again.

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