Directed by Sofia Coppola
Somewhere is less like a movie and more like a poem. It’s a portrait of an isolated actor stuck a Hollywood hotel. The actor, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) seems to live the same day over and over again. He wakes up, smokes, drinks, goes to an occasional party, drifts around town in his black Ferrari, worries about the paparazzi following him and smokes and drinks some more. He has a friend, played by Jackass’ Chris Pontius, but Johnny doesn’t share any joy with his friend or with anyone else. He’s too consumed with his own sadness, and the only thing that can take him out of this is his daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning).
We meet Cleo early in the film, out of the blue. She just shows up on Johnny’s bed one morning as if she simply appeared out of thin air. He is surprised to see her when he awakens, and if it weren’t for the movie’s poster and trailer, we would’ve had no idea he even had a daughter. But once Cleo shows up, Johnny dutifully goes into parent mode. He takes her to her ice skating lesson and marvels at how graceful and skilled she is. We get a sense of the trouble in their relationship (she mostly lives with her mom) when Cleo reminds him that she should be good on the ice since she’s been going to lessons for three years.
After Johnny drops Cleo back off at her mom’s house, reverts to the sullen character he was before. Now he has to attend a press junket for a new action film he made, and every moment of this sequence feel humiliating. We learn that he has slept with his costar (Michelle Monaghan), and she feels spurned by him. Then the camera pulls back to see that, during the photos they took side by side, he has been standing on a block to appear taller than he is. After, Johnny has to sit through dull questions from the international press (he is loved overseas apparently), and he doesn’t really have an answer for any of the questions. The last question is perhaps a little too heavy-handed as the reporter asks, “Who is Johnny Marco?”
When I say this film is more like a poem than a movie, I’m referring to the lack of action and the focus on the stillness of Johnny’s life. Before watching this film, I anticipated Cleo returning to the story much more quickly than she does. I expected Johnny to have to take care of her (which turns out to be true), somewhere around the 25-30 minute mark, and they would have their ups and downs due to his unfamiliarity with her, but in the end they would both be better people because of the time spent together. While this all happens, we don’t see Cleo again until over 42 minutes into the 97 minute movie. Then the “lock in” moment, when Johnny’s ex-wife says he has to take care of her for an indefinite amount of time, doesn’t occur until 48 minutes into the movie, halfway through the story.
This is because the story takes its time throughout the film. We linger on Johnny’s expression or we observe his environment for long periods of time, putting us in his headspace. After the press junket scene, Johnny has to go have a mold made of his face for his next movie. This scene feels invasive, as the sculptors smother the paste all over Johnny’s head until all that’s left are two small holes for his nostrils. Then he’s left alone while the mold dries, and the camera very slowly pushes in on Johnny’s indistinct, clay-covered head for what feels like several minutes. His breathing seems to get louder and more labored, like the walls are closing in and he might escape at any minute.
But he doesn’t.
We simply cut to the next scene. A lot of moments play out like this, with the scene dragging on and nothing really happening. Then it feels like the story simply cuts away. Those silences and long beats of nothingness feel like tension, but they never build to anything. This isn’t problematic, instead it just feels like a reflection of real life.
This is the way Johnny feels, and a lot of people feel like he does, but it doesn’t mean you necessarily do anything about it. It also doesn’t mean there’s anyone who will fix the situation for you. In these moments we don’t just feel what Johnny feels, the pressure and anxiety and existentialism, but we’re watching him roll over when he could fight back.
Cleo is thrust back into Johnny’s life when his ex-wife needs to go away for an unknown reason. Johnny is at first concerned because he needs to go to Italy to do press for his last movie. We think the story is setting this up as a problem, but then we again simply cut away and suddenly Johnny and Cleo are both happily in Italy. The scenes don’t rise and fall like in other movies. They just show us something and move on.
Throughout the whole film there is never any clashing between Johnny and Cleo. Despite some unfamiliarity with each other because of his divorce, they work well together. When Cleo seems mildly perturbed by another one of Johnny’s romantic conquests, she gives him a look, he understands, and we move on. The conflict never builds into any argument, and in that way it feels more real.
Because by the end, Johnny has to say goodbye to Cleo when she leaves for camp. He returns home and becomes reacquainted with the silence. It has always bothered him, but because now he has glimpsed some sense of meaning in his life and watched her go away, knowing she’s growing up, the silence takes on a more imposing role in his life. He breaks down and calls his ex-wife, saying “I’m fucking nothing.”
This is something that has been suggested throughout the film, and it finally comes out. It doesn’t become a plot point, though, because of any back and forth with Cleo. It’s all an internal realization.
Johnny checks out of the hotel, finally, and drives out of the city. We don’t know where he’s going, but he seems to drive with purpose. Then he pulls the car over on a quiet country road and starts walking. The movie ends.
It’s a quiet ending for a quiet movie. This film is about a guy who comes to the conclusion that he’s nothing, and so a lot of the film feels like it revels in that nothingness. Individual moments don’t matter the way they do in more conventionally plotted films, in which a character or idea is carefully set up in act 1 only to be paid off in act 3. Instead, the moments add up to a bigger picture, and that’s what matters.
Somewhere is about patterns, I suppose. Early in the movie we see Johnny drenched in the sheets of his bed while two strippers perform an awkward pole dance for him. It’s really only awkward because the music is quiet (probably playing softly from their crappy iPod speakers), and the dominant sounds are the squeaks of the pole as the girls maneuver around them. The whole thing is forced and uncomfortable, and the camera remains focused on the dancers almost the entire time. Then we cut forward in time to see the girls packing up their foldable poles and leaving the room.
This scene establishes a sense of forced intimacy in place of real intimacy in Johnny’s life. But once we see the dancers again, on another night, this also establishes a pattern. Johnny’s whole life is a pattern, with the same things happening again and again. The film opens with a long take of a static camera looking over a flat race track. We don’t see the edge of the track, only the two sides in the foreground and background. Johnny’s black Ferrari races around the track multiple times, so we see him go right, then left, then right, then left, and so on until he stops the car. He’s just like a hamster running his ass off on a hamster wheel, straining but going nowhere.
When Johnny decides to leave town and then get out of the car at the end of the film, it’s not a giant, sudden decision because there was no giant moment that made him rethink his life. Instead it was the repetition of days, the same old patterns, and a slow recognition of his ways that made him decide to do something about it.
To Johnny, his life was abstract, and the idea of changing his life is also abstract because he can’t precisely identify what’s wrong with his life or what his ideal life would look like. So getting out of the car and walking forward is an important decision, like an addict, the first step is admitting you have a problem. The real work will come later.
Sofia Coppola uses a lot of static shots in which characters interact with the frame. They leave the frame or re-enter the frame, suggesting that they’re unrestrained by the frame but in a sloppy way. Johnny falls down the stairs out of frame; he drives in and out of frame on race track; we first see stripper’s legs kicking into the frame before we even know he has strippers performing in his room, etc.
The shot of Johnny and Cleo lying side by side next to the pool, both wearing sunglasses and sunbathing, is the best image for the film, and it is the poster. They’re doing nothing, together. The camera slowly pans back. You think they’re alone at first, but they’re in the real world. It feels like they’re in their own world, their own bubble, but we pull away from it, and you feel like the bubble is about to burst, either because something might go wrong or because Cleo has to leave soon for camp, and we already know that if Johnny is left alone, he will revert to his old ways.
One interesting final note: most screenplays, I’d say, are between 100-120 pages, but the script for Somewhere is only 44 pages.