In the opening scene of director Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, a black Ferrari goes round and round the same dusty expanse. The impatient among you may dismiss this roughly 3-minute scene as monotonous and boring, but if you decide to stay with the film, you’ll be rewarded.
Somewhere focuses on movie-star Johnny Marco (played by Stephen Dorff) who is staying at LA’s famed Chateau Marmont hotel, the exclusive hiding place of the rich and the famous; the place they go to when they want to be alone and cut off from the world. Marco is nursing a sprained wrist. He spends his days hiding behind a pair of black shades, cradling a drink and smoking in the hotel verandah. We see him curled up in bed, barely awake as two private pole dancers go through their routine for him. On some days he’ll drive around aimlessly through Beverly Hills; on another day he returns to his room to find it’s been taken over by friends and turned into a party. High on drugs and booze, he nods off completely during an intimate encounter with a date.
Coppola, who directed the exquisite Lost in Translation, seems blessed with the extraordinary gift of being able to create compelling characters out of poor little rich kids. She gets you to care about her privileged protagonists who’re going through an existential crisis.
We never see Marco on a film set, yet we get a sense of his importance and obligations. He attends a press conference for a forthcoming film, where he dodges silly questions. He poses for photographs with a co-star with whom you can sense there is an uncomfortable history. And in a scene heavy with subtext, he sits silently as a special-effects team buries him under layers of latex to create a mask of an older character he’ll be playing in a future film.
Very little actually happens in this film, and the meditative, reflective tone is indicative of Marco’s life. He’s shaken out of his stupor when his 11-year-old daughter Cleo (played by Elle Fanning) shows up for a visit. We make out that Cleo is one of those Hollywood brats: she knows how to dress for a movie premiere her father takes her to in Milan, and she’s hardly outraged the morning after when a strange woman in a bathrobe joins them at the breakfast table. Still, in a sense, Cleo is more of an adult than her father. She realizes that Marco needs help, and keeps him distracted through games and father-daughter outings.
It has been widely speculated that Somewhere is a slice of the director’s own early life; that Cleo and Marco are stand-ins for the film’s director Sofia Coppola and her famous father Francis Ford Coppola, the director of The Godfather. It has been said that Sofia’s fascination with hotels (as also seen in Lost in Translation) arises from all the time she spent stuck in them during her growing up years traveling with her father. Be that as it may – fact or fiction, autobiographical or not – it’s hard to deny that Sofia Coppola understands the human condition.
The film is a fascinating portrait of a life in Hollywood ravaged by excesses, and Stephen Dorff brings the right degree of melancholy to the part of the star who burnt out too young. Elle Fanning has an infectious energy and luminous beauty, and she shares a warm chemistry with Dorff that makes their scenes together seem perfectly natural.
This film unfolds at a leisurely pace, but it has a hypnotic, poetic quality that’s one of a kind. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. If you enjoy films that don’t spoon-feed you, chances are you’ll warm up to this one.