starring Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Chris Pontius, Michelle Monaghan
written and directed by Sofia Coppola
by Walter Chaw Sofia Coppola's Somewhere is another of her little tales of listlessness and the lost, of the beauty in the longueurs of existential crises. The summation of her riffs on loneliness and temporariness and the brief interludes of light that merely serve as punctuations for the dark, it's her best film. Funny how one of the great, near-universally-accepted cinema fiascos could net a filmmaker damaged enough to make delicate, ambiguous pictures about the fear of growing up. It's there at those crossroads that Coppola's work locates itself with characters in situations larger than them, buffeted into ideological corners and forced to answer Prufrock-ian questions, cloistered in hotels and Versailles that substitute for chambers of the sea, indeed, among some talk of you and me. Somewhere feels deeply, intensely personal, though the only secrets it divulges are the obvious ones (the life of reluctant celebrity played out in anonymous rooms before invisible audiences), so that its intimacy is a product of a conversation between its impossible signs and the nostalgia for an experience of loss that we provide it. It's gorgeous, and gorgeously broken--a movie about lifelines by a person who's drowned.
Johnny (Stephen Dorff) is a movie star people seem to recognize who lives in an apartment on Sunset's Chateau Marmont and loses track of the world between photo shoots, press junkets, and reminders of forgotten trysts. He has a daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning, heartbreaking), right there on the verge of growing up and a best friend (Chris Pontius) who shows up now and again to play "Guitar Hero" at Johnny's pad. Like the best moments in Coppola's films, the connection these people share is understood in the comfortable way they move around each another. Like Lost in Translation, the story is a bit like a Thomas Mann sketch about desire and dying in an empty room--men of privilege and ease beset with malaise and a lack of vital meaning. Also like Lost in Translation, there's an awkward moment of slapstick (there it was Bill Murray falling off a treadmill, here it's Johnny falling asleep while administering cunnilingus), but I recognize now in these otherwise jarring tonal departures a kind of endearing desire to please in the middle of so much solipsism. It's embarrassment. What I took before in her pictures as shyness and reluctance has, except for that one moment, fled in this film. At last in Somewhere is an artist with a pure idea of regret in her life--what it was that was magical about her childhood at war into eternity with what it is that was horrific--and the self-consciousness to make a joke at her own expense that for as pretentious as it all is, it's a process that demands some completion.
Small wonder that she sees Cleo frozen in amber--on the verge of falling off into a small somewhere and not coming back without the help of a father in the process of falling into a different void himself; no matter the ease of the picture's pacing, there's a sense of urgency to Johnny's process of discovery. There's a long take in the movie where Coppola encases Johnny's head in plaster and leaves him to the wet, black contemplation of himself, dotting the shot with his careful breathing before cutting sharply to Johnny wearing an old-age mask. Somewhere can be broad with its images, but its discussion of time is all the more remarkable for its willingness to take its time. Lengthy interludes spent with Johnny watching Cleo practise figure-skating, with the preparation and appreciation of the perfect eggs Benedict, with an old night porter singing "Teddy Bear" to father and daughter in a late-night hotel lobby, suggest that it's memories of moments like these that give regret its terrible, oppressive heft and nostalgia its winsome tang. If it recalls William Carlos Williams's poetry as well, better just to say that Somewhere is Modernism writ eloquent in Coppola's careful hand. Its open-ended epilogue and its in medias res beginning imply that nothing has been decided and nothing ever will--that entire days of conversation and meaningless encounters will be whipped away by wind and forgetfulness--but that there are small fragments to shore up against the torment of remembering. It's the idea that whether those fragments lodge to fester or flower into the foundation for something wonderful is a matter of choice more than chance that indicates Coppola has done the growing up her characters have not. Originally published: December 22, 2010.
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