Sofia Coppola’s film Somewhere, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival last year, has divided critics between those who find it formally audacious and moving, and those who found it vacuous. The critical split may have more to do with the director’s personal baggage than the quality of this wistfully sophisticated, modest film about the relationship between a celebrity father and his daughter.
Naysayers see Coppola as queen of the lucky club – she’s the daughter of a lion of Seventies cinema, Francis Ford Coppola (who was her executive producer here) and the former girlfriend of Quentin Tarantino (who headed the Venice jury).
For the believers, those same connections work in her favour. As well as being the heir to a golden age in American filmmaking, she’s the only female member in a loosely affiliated group of directors who are considered its spiritual descendants, including her former husband Spike Jonze, Steven Soderbergh, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne and Tarantino.
True to her legacy, Coppola brings a distinctly retro feel to Somewhere (as well as the same set of now-vintage lenses her father used to shoot Rumble Fish). The movie can be seen as a throwback to what critic Robert Kolker called the Seventies “cinema of loneliness.” The mood arises from cinematographer Harris Savides’s precise compositions and long, meditative takes. Music and dialogue are minimal, and background information on the characters is in short supply.
Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is a scruffily handsome B-movie actor who lives in a hotel and drives a black Ferrari. In the opening scene, we see him driving laps around a rural race track. Next we see him back at his hotel, falling drunkenly down a set of stairs, which leaves him with a cast on his broken arm. He drinks beer, pops painkillers and goes to bed with a readily available rotation of attractive women. Most comically memorable are a pair of pole-dancing twin strippers (former Playboy centrefolds Kristina and Karissa Shannon), who bring their own collapsible poles, and finish their acrobatic act by crawling into bed with Johnny.
Why should we care? The answer comes when we meet Johnny’s willowy, quiet 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning), whom he doesn’t seem to know very well. When her mother (Lala Sloatman) has some undisclosed crisis, she dumps Cleo to live with her father in the interval before she goes to summer camp.
We see the father-daughter bond grow through a series of vignettes. Cleo cooks breakfast for Johnny and his doofus childhood friend, Sammy (Chris Pontius). He takes her to a skating lesson and watches, amazed, as she figure skates beautifully. They play Guitar Hero. Suddenly, they go on an overnight trip to Milan where he picks up an award and they share gelato in the hotel room in the middle of the night. Graceful and innocent, Cleo is an angelic presence whose reproving stare when he betrays her trust is a stabbing reminder of his moral emptiness. We know it’s only a matter of time before Johnny awakens to his inner anguish.
Throughout, Dorff is doggedly credible as an obtuse actor, but the richer performance here is from Fanning, and it might have been a stronger movie told from her character’s point of view. It’s no great stretch to see Cleo as writer-director Coppola’s fictional surrogate, a rueful daughter looking at the self-indulgence, and imagined guilt, of her celebrity father.
That leads to the final question about Somewhere: Isn’t it time to move on? For all its admirable understatement, Coppola’s fourth film suffers from a surfeit of déjà vu. There are many scenes here which repeat elements of Coppola’s most successful film, Lost in Translation. They include the basic situation of a jaded actor and a younger woman as playmates in a hotel, through specific matching scenes – an inane press junket, an odd-ball hotel masseur, an immersion in the land of wacky foreigners. Sofia Coppola may be neither a flash in the pan nor the great hope of American cinema, but it seems a bit premature for her to be creating homages to her own work.
- Written and directed by Sofia Coppola
- Starring Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning
- Classification: 14A