With each successive film, director Sofia Coppola has become less concerned with plot and more concerned with simple observation. Her debut, The Virgin Suicides, actually had a story, albeit one that treated her characters’ motivations as unknowable mysteries. Lost in Translation followed, with its study of two people aimlessly floating through Tokyo. In Marie Antoinette, it could be said that things happened, I suppose, but the film was far more interested in how it might have felt to be Antoinette than in what she did.
And now her fourth film, about actor Johnny Marco (played by Stephen Dorff) dealing with soul-crushing ennui, has almost no story at all and is content to simply watch its subject as he’s saddled with temporary custody of his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning). The film opens with a static shot of Marco racing his Ferrari around in circles, and while this would appear an obvious metaphor, in truth it’s almost too kind. Going in circles probably strikes Johnny as an improvement; most of the time he’s not really even moving at all.
He’s living himself a room at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles, perhaps in between roles and recovering from a broken arm, and able to rouse himself into action only when summoned by a publicist to fulfill promotional duties. He has a constant stream of hangers-on and groupies in supply, but he seems to have little pleasure in his life. When Cleo comes for an extended visit, well, that’s something to break the routine, at least.
Coppola, of course, grew up immersed in Hollywood culture, and she brings her considerable insight and powers of observation to bear. The film’s awash in precise and occasionally amusing attention to detail, such as one subtle shot where we see Propecia on Johnny’s medicine cabinet right before he checks his hairline in the mirror, or another sequence when an overly enthusiastic publicist (Ellie Kemper from “The Office”) shepherds him through a photo shoot and press conference. Dorff’s performance is finely observed, as well, especially in the way he regards the endless sycophants in his life with the remote politeness of someone who has trained himself to acknowledge others without actually noticing that they’re even there.
In technical terms, the movie represents another step in Coppola’s evolution as a filmmaker. Working for the first time with cinematographer Harris Savides (best known for his work with Gus Van Sant and Noah Baumbach, as well as Fincher’s Zodiac), she captures a slightly-too-bright look that feels like getting up at 11 AM. I also found elements of the sound design to be interesting, particularly in its emphasis in picking up everyday sounds that most movies would try to avoid. Songs by Phoenix are advertised, but there’s very little musical score, and most of the music in the film is actually diagetic. For example, Johnny is visited twice during the film by twin pole-dancers in his room, but their musical accompaniment is limited to a tinny jukebox, while we hear every squeak they make on the poles and every swish that the fabric of their outfits make as they move. It’s hard to imagine making these encounters more mundane, and indeed during one of them Johnny drifts off into sleep.
But perhaps the most admirable thing about the film is its stubborn refusal to make Cleo overly precocious. You know what I mean – so often in movies, children are either monstrous brats or wise little sages, but Coppola’s content to let Cleo be a kid who’s simply grateful to get a chance to hang out with her absentee dad. For her part, Fanning is remarkably natural in the role, which hardly seems written at all; it’s often as if Coppola caught them playing video games or goofing around in between takes.
I imagine that this isn’t a movie for everyone, and anyone who hasn’t liked Coppola’s previous films is unlikely to find much to appreciate here. It’s elliptical and elusive, to the point where I found myself wondering how big of a star Johnny actually is. Clearly he’s made enough money to live it up, and I think at one point someone mentions that he’s worked with stars like Pacino and Streep, but even this is hard to say for sure since it’s said in untranslated Italian. He’s worried about being stalked by paparazzi, but those fears seem more in his head than reality. We see him at a press conference, but it seems attended solely by starfucking foreign press, and for that matter, his big premiere is in Milan (hence the Italian). We see him pose for photos with his costar (Michelle Monaghan), but the one-sheet for the film looks like nothing more than direct-to-DVD trash.
At any rate, the point is that we don’t really know or learn much about Johnny, which could be frustrating for some who are conditioned, in this celebrity-obsessed culture, to total access into the lives of stars. But Somewhere dispenses with tabloid instincts, and is content, like Marie Antoinette, not to pass judgment on the shortcomings of its lead character but simply to put itself into his shoes. And as such, it’s a work of considerable insight. It may not be as charming as Lost in Translation or as ethereal as The Virgin Suicides or as subversive as Marie Antoinette, but her art continues to develop. This is a very confident, sensitive work. 9/10