Despite the diversity of their settings - 1970s suburban America in The Virgin Suicides (1999), early-noughties Tokyo in Lost in Translation (2003), 18th century France in Marie Antoinette (2006) and now contemporary Hollywood in Somewhere (2010) - the films of Sofia Coppola have displayed a remarkable consistency of theme and tone. Ennui, alienation, melancholy, fleeting connections - these are Coppola’s subjects, and her movies explore them in a highly distinctive film language that’s equal parts poetic and deadpan. As much as those of any mainstream American director, Coppola’s films sublimate narrative to atmosphere and mood, and, whatever its specific origins, her work always feels very personal, built out of her own interests and observations. The director's methods seem to drive some viewers a little crazy, particularly in Marie Antoinette, where her subjective, playful yet discreet approach challenged traditional expectations of historical drama and the biopic. Other viewers - myself included - found that film to be a refreshing antidote to the duller manifestations of both genres.
Coppola’s new movie, Somewhere, which won the Best Film Prize at the Venice festival, is a smaller-scaled work than Marie Antoinette. It’s closer in spirit to Lost In Translation - a little too close at times, if truth be told. The focus is on a hot young actor, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) who’s frittering away his days in a haze of pills, pole-dancers and parties at the Chateau Marmont. This routine is interrupted by the arrival of his almost-estranged 11-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) whose mother is going away and needs Johnny to take care of the girl for a few weeks. The pair’s time together is the focus of the second half of the movie. They play games, entertain Johnny’s pal, go to Italy for an award ceremony, watch TV, eat ice-cream, sunbathe and swim. And grow a little bit closer, inch by inch.
Virginia Woolf’s famed remarks about her composition of The Waves - “I am writing to a rhythm not to a plot” - fit Coppola’s filmmaking style in Somewhere. It’s rhythm that counts in this movie, and while the film’s languid, measured pace will test the patience of some, I think it makes the film work like a balm on the viewer. There are no massive emotional blow-ups, no big transitions: as always Coppola prefers to keep the conflicts under the surface. The substance of the movie is in the details - from the pole-dancers packing away their equipment to Cleo preparing breakfast - and in longer sequences like a simply gorgeous ice-skating scene that marks an early shift in the protagonists' relationship. It’s also in lovely running gags, such as the endless parade of women who accost Johnny, and the string of abusive text messages he receives from some bitter ex. (The way Dorff reacts to these missives, it seems that the abuse just confirms the way Johnny feels about himself already.) Coppola views her characters with a wry, affectionate eye, and gets some amusing celeb-culture satire into the movie too. Dorff and Fanning work beautifully together, and as a quiet, tender anatomisation of a father-daughter relationship the movie earns its place alongside Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum (2008).
Somewhere won’t do much to change the minds of people who view Coppola's films as empty style-exercises focusing on privileged characters who are sketchily drawn at best. But those beguiled by the director’s style will find plenty to enjoy here. Johnny’s journey doesn’t quite have the poignancy or impact of Bob's and Charlotte’s in Lost In Translation but it’s affecting nonetheless. The film starts with the character in his Ferrari, obsessively circling a piece of track, getting nowhere. At the end he’s striding out on foot, heading … somewhere.