Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Somewhere: A time and space for us

One is characterized by decadence and girlhood, the other by austerity and manhood, but both are fun and dryly funny, both remarkably tender, and both orbit a system of privilege and unapologetically acknowledge the ennui can afflict its stars. Perhaps the important difference concerns the nature of these films’ central relationships. Between making
Marie Antoinette and Somewhere Sofia Coppola had a child, and somewhere in the interim the latter became less about a male movie star whose soul has evaporated under the limelight than a father who attempts to breach the distance between he and his daughter with the utmost gentleness, as though the slightest hint of exertion might throw off the whole gambit. The hero of Somewhere almost never looks like he’s working hard, and neither does its director. That’s the charm of Coppola’s filmmaking, and it takes some kind of miserly grouch to dismiss her work for its buoyancy. Okay, miserly and impatient. Somewhere is a lovely, witty, touching film, but it’s not going anywhere fast.

It opens with Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) driving his Ferrari in high-speed circles, a closed circuit that flatly summarizes the current course of his existence, drifting between parties, press junkets and award ceremonies. He’s driving on autopilot, as is most hilariously evident in a scene where he goes to bed with a stranger and falls asleep in her vagina. He breaks his arm in a party accident, and holes up at the Chateau Marmont, where he runs into Benicio Del Toro in the lift. More for consolation than arousal, we see Johnny hire a private pole-dancing performance from blonde twins preparing for their exam. Soon afterward we see Johnny watch 11-year-old Cleo (Elle Fanning) rehearse a figure skating routine, and while there’s a detectable similarity in Johnny’s response, a calm, paternal, indiscriminate sort of encouragement, we’re never meant to confuse Johnny’s affection for seducible young women with his quietly anxious adoration for his daughter. That would be a sleazier, easier film than the one Coppola’s crafted here. What follows is simple enough—Johnny, normally a strictly short-term parent, finding himself the guardian of a tween over an extended period—yet what happens under the surface of Johnny and Elle’s time together is anything but. As father and daughter hang out and travel together, mostly in familial harmony, emotional contracts are discreetly redrawn. Something changes for both characters, though these changes are only suggested by Coppola’s use of sequence, music, and image (her shooter is the great Harris Savides).

And, of course, by the actors. Dorff is brilliantly cast. If he were an A-list celebrity his tabloid status might have interfered with the Coppola’s focus on intimate relationships, with the film world residing always in the background. More importantly, Dorff’s smiles retain something of his co-star’s adolescent lightness, while in other scenes he exhibits the weight of his years through an exhausted slouch. His comic timing’s inspired. In a bit where he gets a text message that reads, Why are you such an asshole?, it’s Dorff’s utterly nonplussed response that constitutes the scene’s punchline. Fanning meanwhile is radiant and touchingly real, natural without any self-consciousness, the ideal product of an acting clan in that she bears none of the ingratiating qualities of many child actors yet seems completely at ease before the cameras. Her role inevitably prompts us to seek parallels between Cleo’s childhood and the director’s, but I suspect Francis Ford Coppola’s life was awfully messier and more fraught with business crises than Johnny’s. My feeling is that autobiography is the film’s seasoning, not its meat.
Somewhere is finally very much in keeping with Coppola’s ongoing concerns, particularly those of Lost in Translation, with which it shares some similar turning points. But it’s also a step forward from that earlier film’s portrait of life as permanent transit. By the time we’ve reached the end of this entry into the cinema of dislocation, there’s the sense that perhaps Somewhere truly does find a place for us.

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