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With 'Somewhere', Sofia Coppola puts a new spin on old obsessions

US filmmaker Sofia Coppola’s new film “Somewhere” has strong autobiographical undertones, but it’s also a gamble: a movie from Hollywood and about Hollywood that refuses to play by Hollywood rules.

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US filmmaker Sofia Coppola’s last movie before her most recent offering "Somewhere" was “Marie Antoinette”, which took us to the lavish hallways of France’s Chateau de Versailles. But many of her critics and admirers alike saw in it more of a portrait of a lonely rich girl than a biopic of the queen who allegedly chirped “Let them eat cake!” when informed that her subjects were out of bread.

Nearly five years later, Coppola is back on more obviously autobiographical ground with “Somewhere”, which took home the top prize at Venice last year. A Los Angeles-set story of a hotshot actor and his pre-adolescent daughter, the movie’s parallels with the writer-director’s own past are clear: Coppola is no stranger to the spotlight and glitter of celebrity, having come of age when her father was the toast of Tinseltown. As she noted in press interviews for the film: “It’s not all me, but there’s things from my childhood”.

While “Somewhere” is therefore, on the surface, less of a stretch for Coppola than the pomp and frills of 18th century French royalty, it is also just as much of a gamble: a movie from Hollywood and about Hollywood that refuses to play by Hollywood rules. Tender, dryly witty, and shot with Coppola’s typically exquisite eye for colour and detail, “Somewhere” also glides along at a slow pace, features little dialogue, and has no plot to speak of. In an ominous sign for the movie’s US box office potential, Rolling Stone magazine compared it to a “European art film”.

A portrait of loneliness in the spotlight

Much of “Somewhere” is a meticulously observed chronicle of the everyday life of a popular actor, Johnny Marco (played by 90s heartthrob Stephen Dorff in a beautiful, sleepy-eyed performance), holed up in LA’s legendary Chateau Marmont hotel. Coppola films Johnny’s routines – women, drinks, showers, pills, cigarettes, more women – in dauntingly long, silent takes. As he stumbles from party to party and is shuffled from publicity event to publicity event, what emerges is a portrait of numbing loneliness: Johnny is a movie star and sex symbol, but he’s also a commodity, a stunted, solitary shell of a man who has everything handed to him on a platter, but is rarely confronted with the risk and pleasure of sustained human connection.

The quiet catalyst in the film is Cleo, Johnny’s 11-year-old daughter (played by Elle Fanning), who arrives for a visit that lasts longer than expected. Coppola steers clear of the typical father-daughter drama; apart from a brief teary episode and a few withering stares across the breakfast table after one of Johnny’s one-night stands, Cleo is mostly adoring and Johnny is kind and attentive. The two play Wii, eat ice cream in bed, and go swimming, their child-like complicity a contrast to the hypersexual bonds Johnny seems to have with every other female in his orbit.

Nothing much happens in “Somewhere”. But no other living American filmmaker -- apart from perhaps Terrence Malick -- is as adept at wringing emotion from images through mood, setting, and how players are arranged within the frame. There are moments that seem familiar until you realise you have never seen anything quite like them before. A scene in which Cleo figure skates to a Gwen Stefani song and two sequences of blonde twins pole dancing for Johnny confirm Coppola as one of the most original observers of the female body working today.

The price of personal filmmaking

Coppola is also the rare virtuoso visual stylist whose uncommonly deep empathy toward her characters prevents her work from feeling over-thought or stifled in hipness. That empathy comes from what Coppola called a “personal connection” with her characters. “I admire movies that come from a point of view unique to that person making it,” she said in press interviews. “I try to make personal films."

That Coppola’s movies have focused on the angst and ennui of the wealthy -- with autobiographical undertones -- has attracted some snarkiness. A review of the film in the newspaper New York Press griped that “Coppola sentimentalizes her family dilemma in order to pose as an artiste” and accused her of “navel-gazing”. An otherwise positive write-up in New York Magazine wondered if Coppola understands “that hers is not the universal human condition”.

For the moment, though, Coppola seems content to tell stories she knows. “What you try to do is show a point of view that someone might not otherwise see,” she said in interviews. “I’ve seen privileged worlds; if you’re outside one, you might think it would completely fulfill you but that’s not necessarily so.”

Luckily, “Somewhere” is far less conventional than that explanation would suggest. Rather than an uplifting account of an actor realising, thanks to his daughter, that his life has meaning, Coppola pulls off the opposite: a slow-burning story of a man who, through spending time with his daughter, starts to crumble as it dawns on him that all meaning has been drained from his life.

Self-indulgent, narcissistic, or redundant as it might seem, Coppola’s short, striking filmography reveals a niche that she, at least for the moment, owns: she is US cinema’s reigning poet of the pampered and disconnected.
 

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