With Stephen Dorff as Sunset Boulevard’s latest fading star and a put-upon debutante daughter, Somewhere is Sofia Coppola’s most autobiographical film to date.
L.A. Confidential by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Like Sunset Boulevard or Chinatown, Somewhere is one of those films about LA. But rather than the noirish hills of Hollywood it’s the downtown lowkey celebrity of the Chateau Marmont Hotel that draws Sofia Coppola’s eye. Witness to the star-spangled antics of Jim Morrison, James Dean and Montgomery Clift, it’s an apt setting for Somewhere‘s nowhereland, the original Hotel California which provides semi-permanent residence to ageing star Johnny Marco. And certainly, Coppola’s not lost her eye for wry observation, the tics of the Los Angeles glitterati lambasted like Lost In Translation’s Japan but without the condescension. But with its waiting-room vibe of lobbies and room service, Somewhere seems like the echo of that film, returning after seven years circumnavigating the globe, redefining its sexless marriage into something altogether more autobiographic – a father-daughter affair to remember.
If utopia is nowhere, Somewhere is definitely a dystopia. Opening on a Los Angeles wasteland with Stephen Dorff as Johnny Marco driving round in circles, it’s a bleak existential statement on life in Tinseltown. For the hill-approaching filmstar, it’s an LA existence of callgirl pole dancers and hate texts in a half-life of hotel rooms and sleb parties. A world that’s rocked by the return of his 11-year-old daughter Cleo, played by Elle Fanning with a proficiency beyond her years, who’s foisted onto the lackadaisical lothario when his ex-wife decides on a time-out. But it’s a thin fictional veneer to an autobiographical summer of love between Sofia Coppola and her own Daddy Cool.
Steeped in an easy life of isolated hedonism, Johnny’s a pin-up playboy weary of the glamorous but empty lifestyle of parties, premieres and pole-dancers. It’s an existential ennui neatly encapsulated in a rather bemused, idle look as he watches the costumed, plastic blondes writhing in sync at the foot of his bed. Despite his arm in a cast and creeping crows feet, he still turns heads, in restaurants and on hotel balconies, the call to pleasure never far away. And as women turn up unannounced, nearly naked in his suite or bellicose in a hotel foyer in Rome, it’s clear this flotsam of jettisoned women belong to a life he’s rapidly growing out of.
It’s due in part to daughter Cleo. As he watches her dance on ice, his gaze is disconcertingly similar to the admittedly bored-looking sexual gaze he casts over the pole-dancers. Yet, it’s different too, softened with a charmed smile, recognising the pleasures of fatherhood may run deeper. And so, acknowledging his absence in his daughter’s eyes, Johnny embraces fatherhood with elegant coolness. And it’s not long before they’re in cahoots, jotting down the number plates of pursuing paparazzi. While never quite the marquee headliner of his characer, Stephen Dorff is admirably nuanced as the philandering bad boy, pushed through the absurd hoops of celebrity, like his latex mask fitting or the bemusingly Italian awards ceremony during their trip to Rome.
For Cleo, this Roman holiday becomes a stepping stone to a different world. At the awards ceremony, she’s literally the debutante in her elegantly gamine dress. It’s a schoolgirl flirtation with celebrity and stardom, but deep down her heart belongs to daddy – all she wants to do is eat late night gelato together in bed, make eggs Benedict for him or play Guitar Hero. Like planets forming in different galaxies, this summer their orbits collide, and as they snuggle on the lobby sofa, sunbathe under the Californian sun or play at teaparties at the bottom of the pool, they get to know and love each other. It’s hard to know how much of Somewhere is autobiographical and how much of Cleo’s yearning for paternal affection echoes Sofia’s own adolescent tours with daddy. But even so, there’s a touching affection between them, a rapprochement which changes both their lives.
Like an existential prism, Somewhere reflects Sofia on all sides, as much the itinerant star as little girl lost. But it’s as the adult Johnny that the film climaxes. Having helicoptered Cleo away to summer camp, he breaks down at the emptiness of his life, vowing to leave hotel nowhereland, and get somewhere for the concierge to send his possessions to. His final journey into the desert, metaphorically leaving it all behind, is poetically apt but trite. In comparison to the hesitant circles of the beginning, the very straight road he drives marking a journey from effeminate hesitancy to masculine potency. An all-too-easy conclusion as he abandons his expensive car, walking into the horizon, smiling. It may be a visually powerful new beginning, but it’s just another empty gesture – the man who’s finally checked out and just rediscovered his daughter isn’t about to start life again from scratch.
With an appealingly honest performance by Stephen Dorff, an LA location and an autobiographical story from Sofia Coppola, Somewhere certainly has kerb appeal. It’s sardonic, with its celebrity-stewing-in his-own-juices indie-ness delicately dovetailed into an asexual love story. But it’s a variation on a familar theme, with LA and Rome standing in for Tokyo. (Only the dancing veline girls raise the arched, ever-so-slightly xenophobic eyebrow of Lost In Translation here.) And it’s hard to tell if Coppola’s turning in circles or just going nowhere.
Somewhere is released in the UK on 10th December 2010