Creating a Mood

Somewhere is the title of the recent film written and directed by Sofia Coppola, who also wrote and directed Lost in Translation. In many ways the two films are similar. In both most of the scenes are filmed in hotel settings, take place in cities with a particular emotional climate (Los Angeles and Tokyo), and concern directionless individuals who convey a sense of dislocation, ennui, and isolation.

But whereas Lost in Translation accomplishes this with an ongoing dialogue of clever banter, there is very little talk in Somewhere. Instead the story is told with images, many of which remain on the screen for long periods and moods, also conveyed visually, of the characters and the situations where they find themselves. It is this simplicity that is the real strength of Somewhere in spite of its unsympathetic character who could have anything (and anyone) in the world at the asking.

The film opens with a long fixed scene of a desert someplace. Eventually we hear the roar of a car go by and in a flash it is gone. The car has that purring sound of a Ferrari punctuated with its familiar downshifts. We hear the car for a while and then it fades away. We realize it is going around a track. The Ferrari comes into view again and disappears. This goes on for perhaps five minutes. Is there something wrong with the projector? No. The car is going round and round nowhere.

The scene shifts to a suite at the Chateau Marmont, that legendary hotel and sometime residence of generations of movie stars. Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is lying in bed watching a pair of twin pole dancers, eyes drooping until he falls asleep. Johnny is in between films that have brought him fame. It means nothing to him. Nothing does.

He languishes in the suite for days. He watches the pole dancers again, he is seduced by one woman after another, but feels no pleasure. He is not depressed, he simply doesn’t feel anything. Is this what fame brings to stars? This is what it brings to Johnny Marco.

You don’t have to be a genius to know how often beauty, fame and riches do not lead to a life of fulfillment. Periods of boredom and angst can come to anyone at any time in their life. Coppola remarks, “The film is really about an existential crisis that anyone can relate to, even though it’s set in an exotic world.”

Johnny is only alive when Cleo, his eleven-year old daughter, played by the remarkably expressive and graceful Elle Fanning visits him. Because of an unclear crisis in his marriage, Cleo visits for a longer stay and then permanently as her mother departs for Europe.

They play the guitar together, lounge by the pool, have a tea-time swim game under water (classic scene) and he takes her with him on his round of press conferences. She cooks meals for him, orders ingredients from room service, and one morning prepares, in almost slow motion elegance, as in a dance sequence, a meal of eggs Benedict.

At a press conference he is asked, “Who is Johnny Marco?” He is silent. Cleo and Johnny fly together to Milan where he receives a meaningless award. He is asked in Italian how he likes Italy. He says he just arrived. Together they fly back to the Chateau Marmont the next day. And so it goes, from one almost silent scene to the next. Johnny’s devotion to Cleo is his only redeeming feature.

In an interview Sophia Coppola said she wanted to find ways to tell a story that was simple and how “little details can express motions—more like in life…I wanted to think of visuals to explain the character and the state he’s in.” In both respects, she has succeeded. Somewhere is a distinctive film with a mood and feeling that remains with you for days.

The film is also about Los Angeles, the special feeling that this city often engenders, a feeling that is well known to me since days of my youth. There is its diffuse and muted light, there is the cinema culture with its fame and celebrity madness, and there is the driving, the driving everywhere, up Mulholland drive to the hills above the city, the long, straight desert road to Las Vegas, the 101 Freeway heading North.

The film ends on the road, quite literally. Johnny gets in his Ferrari, drives out Sunset Boulevard to a desert road someplace, stops the car on the side of the road, turns the engine off, leaves the keys in the car, opens the door, gets out and starts walking.

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