Behind the Silence
We sat down to watch Somewhere last night. It’s one of Sofia Coppola’s movies, released in 2010. I came across it recently when I was researching Jacques Demy’s first English language film Model Shop (1969) which featured in the documentary Echo in the Canyon. I have seen a couple of Sofia’s movies, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette and loved both of them. The desperate loneliness of the characters stranded amidst the dreamy loveliness of the former and Kirsten Dunst’s effervescent yet raw portrayal of the adolescent French queen in the latter left a lingering impression and it’s been on my mind to watch Coppola’s latest offering the Beguiled. There’s also something about her personal sense of style and poise that I admire; cool in an enigmatically understated sort of way she’s one of the few Hollywood ladies I keep an eye on.
Somewhere is the portrayal of an environment with which Coppola is intimately familiar; the world of movie making in Los Angeles. The protagonist, Johnnie Marco, played with a delicate and never overly dramatic touch by Stephen Dorff, is a rising actor who has suffered a recent minor injury. With a failed marriage behind him he is recuperating in that haunt of the industry the Chateau Marmont. His eleven year old daughter Cleo, portrayed by Elle Fanning, pays him an extended visit during the course of the movie but there is very little that ostensibly happens, the dialogue is sparse and the soundtrack creates emotional color and tone. It struck me while watching Somewhere that Coppola has a truly remarkable ability to portray the silent loneliness that lingers in every crevice of the world of fame that she is depicting . Before the arrival of Cleo, Johnnie drifts from scene to scene, press junket to awards ceremony, party to party, sexual encounter to sexual encounter. The dreamlike nature of Los Angeles, which anyone who has spent time here will recognise immediately, serves as a hauntingly voiceless echo of the character’s existence where nothing seems quite real amidst the quiet. In one of my favorite scenes Dorff sits silently alone for minutes in a special effects studio, his face invisible underneath a plaster cast mask. As the camera creeps in we draw closer to him and all we can hear is the sound of his breathing while our eyes are drawn to two grinning masks hanging diagonally behind him. The silence in this scene could be said to scream.
The father daughter scenes are beautifully shot and the genuinely sweet affection between the two characters appears in charming vignettes, crafted with delicate and unhurried care: a make believe tea party at the bottom of the chateau’s swimming pool, an ice cream feast in a hotel room to name but two. Coppola steadfastly refuses to lapse into a sentimental air brushing of Johnnie’s parenting techniques however; from texting during Cleo’s enchanting solo ice skating performance to subjecting her to breakfast with a fling partner on a brief trip to Milan it is clear that his daughter has seen more than she should have had to. Fanning is luminous and utterly natural in the character of Cleo; Coppola consistently draws exquisite and nuanced performances from her female leads and this one is no exception. The camera adores her and she has the gamine charm of a girl who is still very much a picture of innocence in the midst of a world where physical beauty is cheap and misused by both those who own it themselves and those who seek to possess it. It is in the scenes that he shares with his daughter that Johnnie appears to be most anchored in reality. The human connection and responsibility of fatherhood and the escape from the relentless narcissism and decadent self indulgence with which he has amused himself, give him purpose, meaning and happiness while his daughter remains with him.
The ending of this movie is enigmatic and as I don’t wish to be a complete show spoiler I won’t discuss it here- although if you’ve seen the movie and would like to chat about it I’d love to so let me know in the comments. However I will say that those who dismiss this movie as a ‘nothing happens’ performance are completely missing the point. This is a spaciously generous movie which invites you to sit with Johnnie and to really inhabit his soul. Coppola offers her viewer a profound and sometimes uncomfortably accurate analysis of human nature and of what the struggle to be great and to possess true moral fibre really consists of. Sometimes when neither place nor companions offer solace or structure we really truly can only trust ourselves. Highly recommended!