“Somewhere”: Johnny Marco Through the Eyes of Sophia Coppola
Sofia Coppola’s movies are a vision. From airy sequences doused in natural lighting, to her ethereal, eternally lost characters attempting to discover themselves, to those soundtracks that manage to capture the era, message, and mood just right. Her films may not be pure fantasy, but they feel pretty close to it.
The writer/director’s latest feature, however, “Somewhere” feels rather different. Take the opening sequence. The screen fades into a racetrack cutting through a parched desert. An engine roars and a jet-black Ferrari crosses the screen. The camera lingers still on the asphalt road as the sports car is driven off-screen becoming a distanced cry. The sound grows louder once again as the Ferrari comes around. This car laps four or five more times while the camera and the audience is frozen, waiting.
Despite the rising tension, nothing happens. The car halts, the main character, Johnny Marco steps out, and stares out into the deserted landscape. This kind of dry, stripped back filmmaking characterizes this directorial effort. At every point, Coppola reduces the fantastical qualities in favor of a more sobering story.
“Somewhere” is about Hollywood actor, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), and the blasé life he leads in the famed L.A. haunting, the Chateau Marmont Hotel. In between publicity events and production appointments, the actor is lost in a cycle of smoking cigarettes, endless drinking, and cavorting with the random women who populate the hotel. Once Johnny’s daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), comes to stay with her occasional father, his listless life of excess is confronted. For the first time, Johnny has to be available to someone who can’t and won’t walk out of the picture, forcing him to question just about everything.
Coppola sucks the exuberance out of Johnny’s life. The director shows that he is trapped in an empty void by drastically turning away from her more stunning instances of close-up framing and point-of-view editing. Instead, scenes play out slowly in full real-time, with many sequences shot with a stationary camera that rarely ever zooms in or out.
Though the stillness of the camera can feel dull and drawn-out at times, it has its purposes. The leveled, often motionless camera leaves audiences in an objective position. We stay out of Johnny’s head and Coppola leaves it to the individual to be as swayed or unaffected as he or she wants. Like when Johnny watches a pair of blonde, bronzed twins dressed in skimpy outfits twirl around on collapsible poles, a viewer can laugh at the ridiculousness, feel offended by the raw sexual display, or cringe at such an unappealing site.
Johnny and Cleo’s unfolding tension is at the center of the narrative. Dorff and Fanning do a solid job playing out the father-daughter relationship. Dorff loses all vestiges of warmth and drive, unless it comes to warming up to a female conquest. His empty stares off-screen and exasperated huffs indicate a man who is unmotivated and bored.
Johnny’s banality is contrasted with the mature Cleo, who is subtly played by the luminous Elle Fanning (matching the skills of her older sister, Dakota). Fanning is effortless in the role, giving Cleo an authenticity. The actress’ large blue eyes can sting when she judges her father or wilt when she breaks down in a confused cry. Coppola is also careful not to sensationalize the young actress by putting her in a pale sandy chiffon gown during the film’s big costume moment. One wishes that Ms. Fanning received even more screen time to add on to her already nuanced but sparse performance (much of the film was taken up by long scenes of Johnny’s day-to-day, with Cleo not showing up until at least thirty minutes in).
Her presence in his life offers so much unprovoked joy, that it seems that for the first time in a long time, Johnny is able to feel and have purpose. But he has to reconcile his obvious absence in his daughter’s life. When offered such a chance, Johnny fails. Johnny is far too vacant, emotionally un-reliant of a character to do so, which could be blamed on the lackluster Hollywood lifestyle. While Coppola may use Johnny to point out such indiscretions, in terms of plot, his efforts at reconnection fall short.
It can seem that the director went too far in her reduction of narrative, depriving the audience of a strong resolution. Though the director offers an ending with the promise that Johnny has learned better, we are left dubious. While it could be Dorff’s forced moment of emotion or Johnny’s actual idealistic and naive last act, the absence of vigor in Coppola’s main character leaves the end unconvincing.
While her willingness to be so pared down is a mature move within Coppola’s oeuvre, “Somewhere” comes off as cold and stripped down, ultimately robbing audiences of a potentially poignant resolution, a usual treasured mark in the director’s work.
“Somewhere” is playing in select theaters. For more information, click here.