Somewhere opens Friday in select theaters (see times below)
Sofia Coppola, who comes from Hollywood royalty, has made films set in suburbia, Japan and 18th-century France. With her new film, Somewhere, she’s finally made a movie about Hollywood that takes place in Hollywood. But her techniquelong takes, often wordless, sometimes with an obstinately static camerastrips the glamour from the milieu and helps her film supersede its superficial and shopworn subject matter.
Somewhere stars Stephen Dorff as Johnny Marco, a movie star with an indeterminate amount of talent, a reliable amount of fame and an excessive amount of cash, living in Los Angeles’ Chateau Marmont. He’s currently doing press for his latest film, but his primary occupation is women. Blondes, precisely. (To get an idea of the kind of ladies who occupy Johnny’s life, just check out the IMDb credits: Blonde in Mercedes, Bambi, Cindy, Party Girl #1, Party Girl #2, Party Girl #3.) But Johnny doesn’t seem particularly entertained by his Details fantasy existence and enjoys the increasing amount of time he spends with Cleo (Elle Fanning), his 11-year-old daughter.
Working with master cinematographer Harris Savides, Coppola presents Johnny’s lifestyle and the loneliness at its center with long scenes composed of long takes. We watch as Johnny sits in a makeup chair having his head slathered with goop until he’s a faceless mutant with a monstrous head; we watch him wander into a party in his own room that he didn’t know was happening. In one dialogue-free scene, he notices a woman at an intersection and tails her in his car for many blocks, up through the curves of Mulholland Drive, to no avail. After keeping her camera for so long on a fruitless drive, Coppola later moves Johnny and Cleo from LA to Italy with a simple cutshe’s far more interested in Johnny’s lazy drive than in his globe-hopping.
Many scenes are wordless, most are simply conceived and beautifully executed, almost all are poignant, and only rarely do they seem to editorialize. Rather than stripping movie star Johnny’s life of Hollywood glamour, Coppola is stripping the glamour of film-watching from the viewer. The often static compositions might be commentary on Johnny’s inertia: As he watches the two pole dancers who regularly visit him in his room, the camera doesn’t budge even as the dancers slide and dip in and out of the frame, suggesting that Johnny isn’t even interested enough to crane his neck. But those frames are more fascinating for the way they rearrange the action’s relationship to the image. The subject becomes not the dancers themselves, but the space that they are moving in and out of.
Johnny moves in and out of this space, lackadaisically filling the void that would be left if he weren’t there. The fantasy world of a filthy rich, sex-drenched celeb is left to look simply as it really does: The sex isn’t sexy, the Ferrari breaks down and Guitar Hero is too difficult to enjoy for more than a few minutes. This creates a void that leaves a gap usually filled in by a more balanced soundtrack, less stilted camera angles and the occasional plot turn. The fact that the movie is about a movie star is simply a way to call more attention to the stasis of the filmmaking.
Coppola’s static frames heighten the audience’s relationship to the image as a composition. Her juxtaposition of a sexy lifestyle with an almost stilted aesthetic of apparatus-awareness removes the sexiness that we project onto the image, the erotic sparkle that we want from movies. Coppola’s film takes place in Los Angeles, and in some ways it might be about Hollywood, but its real subject is the image and our relationship to it. The somewhere of Somewhere is the space in front of the camera, the subject is whatever happens to fill it.