Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Lost in Luxury: SOMEWHERE

Johnny Marco lives in a gilded cage, an alienating, distancing prison of wealth and acclaim that creates a glittering backdrop that makes it hard to tell just how big of a celebrity he is. Women throw themselves at him. He attends fawning, vacuous press junkets. He gets a trip to Italy to pick up an award of some kind. And yet there’s the sense that he’s not quite an A-lister. He has all the trappings of fame with all of the consequences but little of the pleasure. His life is a void of true feeling covered over by cheap exhibition. In his hotel room he is visited by strippers with portable poles that they assemble from out of duffle bags, but he falls asleep before they can even get their clothes off.

Like in the suburban nostalgia of The Virgin Suicides, the bewildering tourists’ Tokyo of Lost in Translation, and the walled-off royal baroqueness of Marie Antoinette, Sofia Coppola uses the Los Angeles of Somewhere to explore the world of the uncomfortably well-off. Some find her detailed patience and quiet poetics misplaced, as if the privileged posses some innate quality that makes them beneath serious contemplation. Are they not people? Their problems may seem trivial – after all, so many in this world would love to suffer from such shimmering ennui – but the emotions underneath are anything but.

Somewhere is a film of closed loops, empty patterns of behavior in enclosed spaces. Though located mostly in and around Los Angeles, specifically in the famous Chateau Marmont, its hotel suites could be located anywhere. During that trip to Italy, Marco essentially trades in one suite for another. The biggest difference is in the native language spoken by the staff. The interiors of the film are often stifling in their lack of specificity and in the sense that the walls are closing in. Luxurious hotel rooms, heated pools, chilly ice rinks, molds for masks, expensive cars. This is a film that is physically about being enclosed yet travelling in endless circles, a motif revealed in the opening shot with a luxury car driving in wide, repetitive circles. The end of the film parks a car on the side of a highway somewhere. At least we’ve made some kind progress.

The biggest shift in Marco’s life during this film is the arrival of his eleven-year-old daughter, Cleo. At first their relationship proves to be lovingly stilted, but after a phone call from her mother, his estranged ex, Cleo ends up staying much longer than he expected. This is no cheap emotional journey to be sketched out, though. The appearance of an innocent into a world of casual decadence doesn’t so much soften Marco or immediately cause him to rethink his life as it provides a healthy contrast to the women in his life. Grown women reveal themselves to him, proposition him, flirt with him, and leave him angry text messages after their flings have long turned out to be just that. His daughter is not grown. She bristles at some of her father’s ways, glowering across the breakfast table at him after an unexpected overnight guest has appeared. But Cleo also views him with some degree of admiration, wants to impress him. She performs her ice skating routine. She shows off her swimming skills. She orders raw ingredients from room service to cook for him. In many ways she is more mature than his casual partners, but despite being both motherly and enabling, she is still just a child, immature, questioning, judgmental.

The big story here is not how father and daughter change each other but rather how they grow to feel at ease with each other. They grow comfortable together. When they are forced, by film’s end, to part ways, returning for some undefined period to life as it was before, there is a feeling of a fragile, lovely stillness slid suddenly apart. We had watched them interact with greater ease. They had collapsed into the backseat of an Italian limousine wearing matching stylish sunglasses. She rested her head on his shoulder while an Angelino hotel employee serenaded them, easing into a beautifully ordinary moment of familial connection. They sat side-by-side poolside, basking in the warm sun as the camera pulled back, revealing the perfection of their own still little world. What is to become of them now? The future seems to be half agony, half hope.

Coppola trusts her actors to sell such subtle material, to fit smoothly and seamlessly into her tone, her methodical cinematic poetry, and her beautifully arranged, delicately composed shots from the great cinematographer Harris Savides. As Johnny Marco, Stephen Dorff, best known for his roles in schlock like the mid-90’s Wesley-Snipes-fights-vampires movie Blade, gives a career best performance, a wonderfully expressive state of emotional openness. As his daughter Cleo, Elle Fanning (Dakota’s little sister) is luminous in a finely wrought and deftly displayed portrait of pre-teen precariousness. These two performers act a duet, carrying the film more or less by themselves, a feat especially moving amidst Coppola’s confident minimalism. The film is about stasis but it’s never inert; it manages to be about the emptiness of going in circles without ever feeling empty. It’s spellbinding, as precise and bewitching as a gorgeous, hushed, richly textured poem or a powerfully, closely observed trance of splendid, musical melancholy.

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