The other night I happened to catch the ending of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) on television. Although I have watched this film many times, I still found the final moment between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson touching. The poignancy of their goodbye, which signals the possibility of unexpected connection, is likely to tug at the heart strings of even the most anti-Sofia Coppola filmgoer. I am sure that you are aware of the group of detractors that I am referring to: the people that claim that her films are boring, rely on hollow aesthetics over plot or character development and are exercises in self-indulgence. However, when Somewhere was released at the end of 2010, it seemed that even fans of Coppola’s style were echoing these sentiments. Unfortunately, Somewhere was a blink and you’ll miss it affair at cinemas in my area, so I was only recently able to come to my own conclusions.
I wanted the film to be really naturalistic and the whole thing to be really minimal, and see how simply we could tell this story visually to not be aware of the camera, so you felt like you’re really alone with this guy, to make it as intimate as possible…I mean, even for me, the beginning [making circles with the Ferrari] is uncomfortable to watch, because it’s like, “ok he’s going to do it one more time,” but it tells the audience: “you know, if it’s not for you, you can leave right now, or you’re going to have to get with the pacing of it.” It makes you have to shift, so you’re used to being stimulated, and shift into this more introspective mood.
To provide the sketchiest of outlines: Somewhere provides an insight into the empty existence of a film star (Stephen Dorff) and the manner in which his life is subtly transformed when his daughter (Elle Fanning) comes to stay with him indefinitely. He lives in the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, fills his time with meaningless sexual encounters and is characterised by rootlessness and ennui. The opening scene, which Coppola refers to in the above quote, serves as a visual metaphor for the entire film, which is replete with long takes that remain focused on mundane moments for achingly extended time periods. With this technique Coppola interpellates the interior life of Dorff’s character with the viewer’s experience in a conceptual move that attempts to cinematically convey his emotional state. But does it make for good viewing?
This question is, for me, the main one that arises from a viewing of Somewhere. In her previous films Coppola exhibits an uncanny knack for making the banal visually interesting. However, the overtly feminine aesthetics of The Virgin Suicides (1999), Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette (2006) are notably missing here, because – lets be frank – the life of Dorff’s character is pretty ugly. You only have to watch the scene featuring the pole-dancing twins to be overwhelmed with a feeling of grotesque boredom and hopelessness. To her credit, Coppola offsets this tone with the sequences that frame the slowly blossoming relationship between Dorff and Fanning, but, in its devotion to naturalism, Somewhere can at times makes the viewer feel as though they are watching an unedited portion of reality television.
If anything, the main complaint that can be directed at this film is that the concept has overshadowed the execution. That being said, there are a handful of moments that make this film worth viewing (the underwater tea party scene, in particular, is delightful). Just don’t expect “classic” Coppola – the “somewhere” of this film is way beyond the scope of that terrain.