They Cry at the Chateau Marmont Too: Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere”

Somewhere is a tough movie to like, but it’s also tough to hate.  Director Sofia Coppola captures so many sweet, tender, and quirky moments that the movie never feels as oppressive and boring as the subject matter might suggest.  There is, however, something distasteful about watching the aimless life of Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a disaffected and discontent movie star, especially today in the worst economy since the Second World War.  One would think that Ms. Coppola would eschew another story about those poor misunderstood rich people when there are so many other issues that need attention.

Now I’m not one of those high-horse socially-conscious conveyors of guilt who scoffs at the idea that the problems of the rich and famous are insignificant compared to “regular” people, or that they have nothing significant to say about the human condition.  If anyone thinks being an A-list movie star is easy, spend a few days with people chasing you and your family down every time you try to go to Target.  It’s a 24-7 job and everyone wants a piece of them.  However, this is ground Coppola has covered before and, unless she doesn’t have anything relevant to say about anyone who isn’t a millionaire, she should move on.

There’s nothing insightful or terribly entertaining about watching Johnny indulge in one passionless debauch after another at West Hollywood’s famed Chateau Marmont Hotel, but the addition of his sweet, but undemanding daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning) certainly adds what the movie needed.  And Fanning’s wonderfully sweet performance doesn’t hurt.  We immediately identify a tentative familiarity, as though they are going through the moves without the experience of past father-daughter bonding.  She is his daughter, but clearly has spent little time with him as he jets around the world to film and promote.  Watching their cautious relationship develop has a certain charm but not enough, I’m afraid, to rescue the movie from its rigid conceit.

Coppola just doesn’t have anywhere to go with the material.  (It says something about the yes-man culture of moviemaking that no one pointed out to Coppola that the opening scene in which we watch a black Ferrari zoom around a closed course in the desert in a single, mind-numbing, watch-glancing shot, could be seen as a metaphor for the pointlessness and repetitiveness of, not Johnny’s life, but Coppola’s filmmaking.)  Her casual narrative becomes just as meaningless and meandering as Johnny’s life.  Is that really enough to sustain a feature length movie?  The characters ostensibly go through something, but nothing really happens so it isn’t clear why they go through anything at all.  Johnny has an epiphany of sorts, but it isn’t clear why he has it then and not any other time in his life.  Did the cheap meaningless sex and parties chalk full of plastic people lose some of its glamour for him?  Why did Cleo’s presence at this time change anything?

This movie feels like those self-important European art movies of the 1950s and 1960s like Last Year at Marienbad that supposed to expose the empty shell that was (and is) modern bourgeois life.  But, like Marienbad, it acts as class pornography, giving us a sample of the bourgeois pleasures while we confidently look down our noses at the emptiness of their lives.  We can both marvel at and scoff at the life of the rich..  Johnny Marco’s life has to be empty and unfulfilling, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to feel secure in our less affluent lives.  Sofia Coppola doesn’t tackle a more challenging avenue which would be to make Johnny not the clichéd soulless movie star, the empty sieve into which others pour all their desires, but a real person who struggles with what is expected of him and what he wants.  Johnny has no personality except to be as unimposing as possible.  He is like the stifled protagonist of one of those Resnais or Antonioni pictures, but those movies didn’t say anything particularly profound either.

Ms. Coppola never makes the case as to why we should care about Johnny Marco.  Stephen Dorff’s performance is so low key (he seems to have been rolled out of a morgue) that moments in which we can emotionally connect aren’t there.  Cleo offers the best opportunity for Johnny to do so, but she never really pushes him, until her final scene where she (sort of) breaks down over his neglect, but even that potentially meaningful moment is glossed over in favor of a flashy helicopter.

OK, so I guess that is the point Coppola is making: the glamour of fame can overshadow the things that really matter in life.  But is this really something we care about?  Yes, it could be, but not like this.  I suppose the putatively touching interaction with his daughter, along with Johnny’s Hollywood lifestyle burnout pushes him to that epiphany I wondered about above, but by that point so little has happened that we don’t much care.  He spends so much time brooding over five star food and falling asleep in the middle of oral sex that he becomes just as tedious to us as his burdensome life is to him.

Despite these reservations I can’t help but admire what Ms. Coppola did right.  I love that she spurned the tired and often hackneyed narrative conventions to present a slice of life portrait of a man.  I think if the man had been more interesting, less disaffected, had more personality, or a point to his life, this narrative strategy could have been more successful.  (Just because he’s lost doesn’t mean he’s interesting to watch.)  She also captures so many genuinely sweet moment between Johnny and his daughter Cleo.  I found myself, despite all the angst I’ve described above, grinning stupidly when Johnny and Cleo share a late night gelato feast, or when they partake in an imaginary tea party at the bottom of a pool, or a lingering shot of them sunning by the pool, or Cleo carefully constructing eggs benedict for breakfast.  (Don’t be so stingy with the hollandaise!)

Aside from the charming sequences between Johnny and Cleo, Coppola gives us enough of the chilling and disarming as well, like those creepy in-call pole dancers and the squeak of their flesh every time they slide down their poles, or when Johnny, when driving out of the Chateau Marmont, glides past the wreck of a sports car that plowed into the wall across the street from the hotel, an odd tribute to iconic fashion photographer Helmut Newton who died just this way in 2004.

Coppola’s aesthetic is undeniably attractive; I just wish she put it to better use here.  Each sequence, seemingly as random as Johnny’s life, is lovingly thought out and executed, but in the end we are left with a sinking feeling that it doesn’t mean as much as it should.    Coppola has an undeniable talent for weaving the mundane and the extraordinary, a fitting skill for a film about the life of a movie star, a person whose life is daily marked by both.  But the lack of insight or compassion leaves us with the shell of a picture.  What she does visually is stunning, but she doesn’t add much more than what we saw in the trailer, leaving us with the promise of an idea and a sketch of a movie.





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13 responses to “They Cry at the Chateau Marmont Too: Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere”

  1. Jason – very interesting review. I love Sofia, so I am very eager to see this when it opens in Philly next week. You make many good points about the “material” she routinely explores.

    I always thought her unique visual style would lend itself well to some stretching…perhaps in a genre picture. I don’t know why…I always thought a heist film would suit her – something just completely out of left field beyond her usual themes and purely plot driven where she could really hone in on the technical point-by-point construction of a film/story. Imagine her holding a shot uncomfortably too long on…I dunno…a guy cracking a safe…the tension she could build mixed with the mundane nature of the action that would second-nature to the guy sleepwalking through this thing he has done dozens of times. And she could really get inside their heads with some daydream sequences…I dunno, I’ve always seen big things for her if she could just break outside of the box of her pretty little princess world. It’s like she’s Terrence Malick directing the dreams of Paris Hilton. Fascinating – but only to a point. She should be Terrence Malick directing a heist film…or a zombie thriller…with a killer pop soundtrack. She could blow someone like Tarantino out of the water.

    • Thanks as always David. I’ll be curious to hear what you think about this. I didn’t hate this movie. It’s really a mixed review, but ultimately I came out on the negative side.

      I bristled a little when you said she should do a heist film, but as you laid out your case I warmed up to it. She is an enormously talent filmmaker and she would benefit from switching up her subject matter, so why not a heist picture? Or, along the same lines, a con artist pic along the lines of a “House of Games.” She could find some fun ways to play with what’s real and what isn’t. I admire her visual audacity (she’ll hold a shot well after most would have cut away), so it would be fun to see her do something with characters we actually care about. She has the ability to make a really great picture.

  2. Yeah, she’s one of those “artistes” I just wish I could sit down and talk to…or sit in on a therapy session with. She is such a natural when it comes to visuals…she was born to do this. It’s all she knows. But she needs to get over her hang-ups and try something new – apply what she knows to something rote…turn the ordinary or formulaic into the extraordinary. Oh…Sofia…if I could just write you a letter…

    David Lynch is another one…ugh…he should do a romantic comedy…HA! or a Jane Austen adaptation. But that’s a whole ‘nother conversation…

    Wait…Sofia Coppola…doing Pride & Prejudice & Zombies!

    Oh, how the mind wanders.

    • Well David, you don’t have to dream about sending her a letter. People write celebrities all the time. Sure, you may end up on a potential stalker list, but…. well, the point is it can be done.

      Yes, David Lynch is another one. I have a love-hate relationship with him, though I liked “Inland Empire”, which even surprised me.

  3. I should’ve qualified that statement…write her a letter she would read…though I imagine we could both bond over our love for Scarlett Johansson.

    There were parts of Inland Empire I loved (Dern’s monologue, the Polish scenes, the Locomotion) and parts I hated (the Rabbits, the Grace Zabriskie scenes). I just wish Lynch would go back to film…in any form…it’s as if he’s retired from film and is only interested now in cooking, meditation, and doing voice-over work for Seth McFarlane.

    • Ah, well, if you want her to read it, that’s another matter.

      I remember sitting in the theater watching “Inland Empire” and slapping my head (maybe during one of the rabbit scenes) and I thought to myself, “Well, this is either genius or trash and since I’m enjoying so much of it I’ll go with genius.” Of course it probably falls into a more ambiguous category between the two.

  4. Well, Jason, this is a fair and insighful essay of a film I have thus far avoided. Mind you, I am not at all thumbing my nose at the generally very good reviews the film has received, but rather, it’s a long disdain for Coppola’s work, with the exception of her “fair enough” opening, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES. I found LOST IN TRANSLATION one of the most overrated films ever (and I went to the theatres FOUR times to see it, thinking the problem HAD to be me) but continued to find it empty and pretentious. Her MARIE ANTOINETTE yielded some of the same static issues, and now we have SOMEWHERE, which some have warned me won’t stem the tide. But I can appreciate your level-headed reaction here, one that at least in part broaches some of the issues I had with her work in the first place. I will definitely get around to this at some point in the near future.

    • I think if you aren’t a fan of “Lost in Translation”, you won’t like this one either. I still haven’t seen “Marie Antoinette” so I don’t really know how it compares. There are definitely reasons for seeing it. Like I said, I enjoyed certain parts and there are still some things I think back on with affection. Thanks as always Sam!

  5. certainly charles

    your review is often rude. if you don’t “get” the movie, fine, but you don’t need to be rude and get angry that you don’t get it, do you?

    there is no more important thing to reflect, imo, then the shallowness of modern life and the finding of things that remain (bob dylan said and i quote “when you gonna wake up, and strengthen the things that remain”). well, sophia made a movie about it. sophia is the best and time will prove me right. she is in touch with what is ailing us all and has her finger on it. i’d be thankful for many more films just the same. i love them. you didn’t get the movie, ok. you are johnny, but at the end of the movie, you keep driving in the ferrari, get it?

    • I don’t understand why expressing a negative opinion about a movie is rude. If you disagree with me fine, tell me why, but don’t try to explain them away by casting me as irrational or mean-spirited. The problem is this movie says nothing about the “shallowness of modern life and the finding of things that remain” (whatever that means). Writers and filmmakers have been commenting on modern shallowness since Antonioni, Fellini, and Resnais in the 1950s and 60s. They weren’t enlightening then and they aren’t enlightening today. A movie star who has an empty life? Wow, thank you Ms. Coppola. What a revelation. Is Johnny’s empty life more worthy of attention because he’s rich? What about the millions more of us who lead regular lives? Do we struggle with the same problems? If so, why not shine a light on us?

      No, Charles, I wasn’t angry that I didn’t get it. I got it and got over it very quickly. Coppola isn’t in touch with anything except her small circle of elite friends. I’m glad though that you enjoyed it and got some meaning out of it. That I didn’t doesn’t mean I have to defer to a sub-par movie because, bless her, she tried to do something and you liked it.

  6. certainly charles

    Is Johnny’s empty life more worthy of attention because he’s rich? What about the millions more of us who lead regular lives? Do we struggle with the same problems? If so, why not shine a light on us?

    This I take as the kernel of your complaint and i would be bothered just as you if i thought that Coppola was suggesting that the feelings of Johnny were only for the rich and famous. I am almost certain that she doesn’t feel that way. To me, one of the more interesting facets of lost in translation was that of the two main characters, it was the non-rich and non-famous one who was most in touch with what was important and what was hollow in life. While her husband went off chasing money and recognition, she found life in the company of older man with whom she felt a real connection with.

    Coppola might go as far to say that this feeling that has become a theme of hers in more felt by those who have more time on their hands — time to reflect and feel — but it hasn’t nothing to do inherently with money or fame in my opinion.

    Johnny could very well have been a teacher, THOUGH IT WOULD BE A LITTLE LESS LIKELY, perhaps less believable or harder to pull off and I hope that her next movie does just that: takes one of the “millions more of us who lead regular lives”, as you put it, and brings that person to the crossroads of sort that Johnny found himself at the end of the movie.

    Making Johnny rich and famous serves to make her job easier and provides nice contrast and also serves as eye candy for the audience (after all, don’t we all want what Johnny has), but i don’t fault Coppola for that choice and i certainly don’t draw the conclusion that you do — that being rich and famous is a prerequesite to understanding the end of the movie.

    i don’t see Coppola as an elitist AT ALL. exactly the opposite in fact! and for my money, i love what she is saying about life and i love the pace and sequences of her films. she is not trying to entertain people (though there is nothing wrong with that certainly), she is speaking her feelings about life in her films and she creates a calm and quiet setting in which to do so.

    • OK, you make some great points here. I absolutely agree that Coppola is a talented director. I think I said it in my review, there are individual moments in this movie that I thought were quietly beautiful and showed great instincts. I also appreciate the fact that she takes her time, doesn’t rush us through one scene to the next, giving us time to savor and enjoy each shot and scene.

      I like what you say about Coppola using people who have more time on their hands to make her point, though I would venture to guess that a star of Johnny Marco’s caliber wouldn’t have too much free time on his hands. I would also suggest that it is easier for her to tell this story with someone rich and famous isn’t a terribly good argument. Yes, you may be right, but I don’t think it’s the job of an artist to pick the easy story to tell. Artists ought to be looking for the next challenge, not the next easy project. How would it have been different (and possibly more relevant) if Johnny had been, as you suggest, a teacher? That could have been an interesting story, though if she followed the same course I think I would have had the same problems.

      In the end, she focused more on style and less on substance and for that I just couldn’t connect with this picture. But thanks for your thoughts. You made some points I hadn’t thought about, which I always appreciate.

      • certainly charles

        the thing is is that i related to johnny. when i saw johnny and his life, i thought of myself. to me, the fact that he was rich and famous was completely irrelevant, much like, for the most part, the long island setting for Jaws.

        the whole point was that johnny COULD be anyone. in fact, at the end of the movie, having shed his car and life, HE WAS ANYONE.

        youngish guy has everything (actually nothing…), tons of money, a good head on shoulders, people at his feet, fame. spends some days with daughter. he decides his trappings are sucking him dry and throws them aside and bravely goes forward. i love it.

        and the beauty of coppola is what we DON’T see. we don’t see johnny almost lose his life in a car crash, we don’t see his daughter almost eaten by a lion at the zoo, we don’t see the daughter go on like a tyrant about lost time and how money ruined his life. in other words, THIS MOVIE ISN”T HAPPENING TO US, we are IN IT, like real time. are you kidding me, this is the work of someone with delicate sensitivity — this is the real thing. how can a movie in which nothing happens be contrived! this is about as close to how something like this would happen.

        it is terrible irony that she is thought of as an uppity artist in some of the above posts. she is the exact opposite! she believes in good in people, men and women alike (johnny in this case) and the power of good in the innocence of youth, and the ultimate hollow of political power and luxury, and she presents this all to us rather completely and quietly and earnestly. what a message and what a movie

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