Her gorgeous testament to slow cinema, crippling loneliness and hollow celebrity may just be her magnum opus
The Virgin Suicides is great; it’s a torpid take on suburban dysfunction and how a longstanding mystery can hold the attention of horny boy neighbours. Lost In Translation is fantastic; its ‘lonely together’ through line is cinema’s precursor to the invention of Tumblr. Somewhere, however, is phenomenal; it combines the best filmic signatures of Coppola: slowness, socially impregnable middle-aged men, a faultless soundtrack and a wish-you-were-here setting. These attributes tally up to Sofia Coppola’s most severely underrated entry on her CV.
Somewhere tells the story of a deadbeat actor (Stephen Dorff) whose apathy knows no bounds. Another blonde, another Ferrari, another obligatory press interview – that is, until his 11-year-old daughter is dropped on his doorstep for an extended visit. As any casual Coppola fan will know, this story is not too dissimilar to Coppola’s own uprbringing. As the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia made her big screen debut as a baby in a baptism sequence for The Godfather. Growing up on sets, her entire childhood revolved around the stop-and-go nature of filmmaking – something that’s wormed its way into her sensibility as a filmmaker and underpins this father-daughter tale.
Somewhere has all of the Coppola signatures, but there are three key reasons why the film, which is five years old this year, is her best work.
COPPOLA GIVES EXTREME ATTENTION TO SUBTLETY IN SOMEWHERE
Read any review of Somewhere and you’ll come across something along the lines of Roger Moore’s critique: “Even so-called ‘slow cinema’ shouldn’t be this dull.” What separates Somewhere from its other sloth-like counterparts is that it goes the whole hog. Yes, it’s sloooooow. While it doesn’t bog itself down too much with plot, it takes some of the best ruminating qualities of her other films (think ScarJo’s survey of Tokyo’s landscape from an isolated hotel room) and mashes them up for an effect that is akin to mainlining relaxation. There’s definitely a market for this. Hell, there’s even a subreddit called Slow TV dedicated to Coppola-approved Windows screensavers in motion to reach ‘peak chill’.
“(Coppola) examines boredom, privilege, torpor, laziness and adolescent daydreams with a kind of molasses slowness that no one else can touch,” writes film critic Dave White. “That’s good because no other American filmmaker is really trying to touch it anyway.”
IT’S AN INSIDERS COMMENT ON THE HOLLYWOOD MACHINE
Somewhere celebrates a slowness borne out of LA and intrinsic to the film’s set-up, but refuses to apologise for it. Others have tried to capture that feeling of stale fame, most recently David Cronenberg’s Tinseltown takedown Maps to the Stars, but none has come close to Somewhere’s ability to show the realities of Hollywood without simply making a mockery of it. In the location – Sunset Boulevard’s Chateau Marmont – lies the idea of whimsy, the American dream. It stands in as a schmoozing hot spot for Cronenberg’s Stars, albeit in a cartoonish way. The hotel was even used for Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” music video and is famed for its live-in residents (see Lohan, Lindsay). When Dorff’s character passes actor Benecio Del Toro in the lift, you double take; was that in the script, or was Del Toro just staying there?
That’s just at the surface – the film is a comment on the Hollywood machine from an insider POV. Dorff’s character Johnny Marco walks into a party in his own room that he didn’t know was happening. Then we get to the Foo Fighters “Hero” pole dance sequence: the paragon of this navel-gazing. Coppola could have shown a mere couple seconds of the strippers slinking down the pole, but she opts to milk it while Marco falls asleep, seemingly to bored to even cock his head up and watch. It’s the ultimate example of excess and vapid celebrity; everything down to the music echoes Coppola’s notion of the Hollywood vacuum. In “I’ll Try Anything Once” – a demo from The Strokes – Julian Casablancas drones, “Everybody was well-dressed / and everybody was a mess […] oh, all the girls played mental games / and all the guys were dressed the same”.
THE SOUNDTRACK IS HER BEST SINCE THE VIRGIN SUICIDES
Then we get to the music. The opening scene – which could be dissected ad infinitum as some kind of metaphor for the monotony of being a sad, rich person – works perfectly soundtracked by Phoenix’s “Love Like a Sunset”. What Sofia Coppola does with her music choice is impeccable. Instead of feeling superimposed, invasive, or even ‘cinematic’, it quietly infiltrates the story, used sparingly (how else?) while driving the narrative forward.
“When I was working on the music for this I didn't want to just use pop songs as the score,” Coppola told Pitchfork back in 2011. “Most movies do it and I've done it before. And I didn't just want something cool. Instead, I wanted the characters to really be listening to music, so I picked things that would be believable and suit the emotional side of the scene.”
The result is, to date, the best soundtrack since her untouchable work with Air for The Virgin Suicides. Only Canadian wild child Xavier Dolan comes close with his insertion of cheesy hits like Céline Dion’s “On ne change pas” in films like Mommy. Whereas his choices sit effortlessly atop the story, Coppola’s tracks are embedded within the narrative. Without them, the story just doesn’t make sense.
Much like her soundtracks, Somewhere fades out with Johnny Marco soaring down an open stretch of motorway, perfectly sandwiched by the second part of Phoenix’s “Love Like A Sunset”, a spine-tingling post-script on crippling loneliness all presented without judgment. This is what Sofia Coppola does best – the voyeur looking at someone’s crisis in near slow-mo. Because there’s nothing like a stretch of open road to contemplate life and how you’re living it.