Thursday, 23 December 2010

Film Review: Somewhere (2010)

Following the visually stunning but otherwise uninspired and bemusing Marie Antoinette (2006) Sofia Coppola returns with Somewhere, a consciously and predominantly unexciting glimpse at celebrity culture focusing on a father-daughter relationship and ruminating on themes of identity and materialism. The similarities to Lost in Translation (2003) are immediately noticeable, as if Coppola deliberately set out to capitalize on the success of her most acclaimed film by mining the same topical and stylistic field, but Somewhere is a much more mature and complex film and one that will undoubtedly split audience opinions even more starkly.

Less of a sequel to Lost In Translation and more of a hypothetical prequel to Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984), Somewhere is low on dialogue, instead favoring long languorous shots that leave the audience to fill in the silent blanks. Stephen Dorff plays Johnny Marco, a Hollywood Actor whiling his days away at L.A.'s notorious Chateau Marmont but whose privileged yet lonely lifestyle is disrupted when his daughter Cleo, played expertly here by the young Elle Fanning, is left for him to look after by her mother. Cleo's presence forces Johnny to re-examine his behavior, duties and position within life but as with Lost In Translation, Coppola offers no definite conclusions or overt character arcs in this self-confessed partially autobiographical tranche de vie.

This is less of a character study, bearing in mind that Johnny is mostly presented as a two-dimensional anti-hero who rarely has anything to say, and more of a study on mood. Every aspect of this film, from mise-en-scene to the soundtrack, is constructed in such a way to communicate to the audience thoughts and ideas that not only go beyond the scarce dialogue, but beyond the diegesis of the film itself. Coppola has truly come into her own as a filmmaker and begs to be examined as a serious auteur. While taking influence from the Italian neo-realists in terms of style the characters here are privileged and wealthy rather than working class but she imbues the existentially nihilistic world in which Johnny inhabits with a potentially redeeming humanist core.

Like Johnny, seen driving his Ferrari alone on a circular race track in the opening shot of the film, we are all trapped to a certain extent by the circumstances surrounding our own personal existence and the trajectory in which we build momentum in our lives. We all want to be someone, we all want to feel like we're headed somewhere, but do we really know where we're going and what tangible or intangible form of happiness, if any, lies at the end of the road? Coppola asks these questions through the macho American cardboard cutout of a character that she has created as her satirical puppet and whom we are unlikely to feel much sympathy for.

In one scene Johnny's head is cocooned within a plaster mold for the purposes of a special effect for a new film he's starring in, and as he sits on his own waiting for the mold to dry with only two nostril holes through which to breathe, the camera completes an excruciatingly slow zoom to close-up, highlighting not only his isolation but the absurdity of the process itself, the culmination of which is a prosthesis designed to age his appearance, and in seeing himself as an old man in the next shot he is faced with the notion of his own mortality, something which he no doubt attempts to distract himself from through sex, drugs and money. In Cleo, Johnny is confronted with the antithesis to his empty, materialist, lifestyle and yet she herself is partially enticed and excited by it and the film does flirt with excess on occasion, never painting things entirely in black and white. There are no grand incidents that occur, no sweeping climaxes; two characters cry in separate scenes but both moments lack full closure, and the film itself ends on a vague denouement that's left open to interpretation.

To call this film self-indulgent would be rather accurate; as the daughter of one of cinema's most influential and acclaimed directors, [Sofia] Coppola operates self reflexively, and whether or not you choose to engage with the subject matter, which invites deeper reading, it is impossible to ignore the masterful filmmaking displayed here. With Somewhere, Coppola became the first American woman to win the Golden Lion, the top prize at the long running and prestigious Venice Film Festival; I greatly look forward to seeing where she goes from here.

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