Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere echoes Lost in Translation in its exploration of a lonely male movie star who finds redemption through a female figure, but this time the director focuses on an actor whose career is on the rise and his relationship with his 11-year-old daughter. Through its meditative and poetic exploration of the vacant personal and professional life of Johnny Marco, (a Colin Farrell-esque bad boy) Somewhere exposes how life in the Hollywood fishbowl distorts the dichotomy between the quotidian and the cinematic, the real and the unreal. Marco occupies the very unreal spaces of lavish hotels. When he is not travelling he lives at the Chateau Marmont on the Sunset Strip—an Edenic bevy of women, booze, and drugs. This lifestyle is quite the opposite of a grounded and routine home life. Coppola emphasises Marco’s emptiness within these transient and illusory locales through wide shots wherein the vast and ostentatious rooms threaten to swallow the small, sole figure of Marco.
Another contributor to Johnny Marco’s hollow existence is that he cannot escape the preformative nature of his profession even when the cameras stop rolling. The cinematic seems to bleed into every aspect of his private life, expunging any sense of authentic humanity. Throughout the film Marco fears that an SUV is following his car, as if he is reenacting the very action film he currently stars in. In one scene, Marco attempts to give a genuine and heartfelt acceptance speech at an awards show, only to be interrupted by a hyper-sexual song and dance routine. He also hires a pair of twin strippers who perform fumbling dances for him in front of his bed. Coppola takes care to show the before and after of the strippers’ dance as they methodically fold up their pole, flirtatious smiles absent, in order to expose the mendacity of their performance. Coppola returns to this comedic and bitter motif throughout the film.
The disillusioned actor is unable to have an embodied sexual experience with the dancers for he passes out before the routine is over. Before Marco falls asleep, he can only watch them as if they are standing behind a movie screen. Yet when he is able to fulfil his sexual desires through the many women who throw themselves at him, he ends up feeling nothing. Coppola juxtaposes Marco’s reaction to female figures in his life performing different styles of dance to demonstrate this idea of the real vs. the unreal. Marco gives the strippers’ performance a drunken half-asleep single clap as opposed to erupting in a robust and admiring applause for his daughter Cleo’s ice skating routine. He receives more fulfilment through their familial connection rather than strippers’ contrived sexual promises. Absorbing her vivacious spirit, Marco finds joy engaging in simple acts with his daughter: playing the Wii, swimming, and giggling at television shows. Marco knows that people (especially women) shower him with overwhelming praise only because he is a star. Everyone performs around him except for his daughter. Their relationship is real, and that is why she gives his life meaning. Yet we also see how Marco’s Hollywood bubble penetrates Cleo and gives her life the same sense of unreality. She cooks for him as a mother/wife figure, views him through an exorbitantly heightened wide-eyed adoration, and even takes a helicopter to camp.
Coppola continually exposes Hollywood as a fanciful playground through her farcical mise en scene. While the profession of acting itself deals with the unreal nature of a human pretending to be another human, most actors feel a very grounded pride in executing their craft. Coppola makes a conscious decision not to show Johnny working with his actual talents, but rather participating in the very bizarre requirements of his work: press junkets, parties, and interviews. Employing her motif of juxtaposing the preformative before and after, Coppola displays how quickly stars and interviewers turn themselves “on” and camera ready, and how disparate this image is from their true self. We see overeager, hounding, and hungry reporters who care little about Marco’s actual answer and more about obtaining it. Ellie Kemper echoes her Kimmy Schmidt future in a role as a bright, peppy, and doting PR girl who insists how great Marco’s press conference will be. It’s not—Marco can barely answer the reporter’s questions. Marco and his co-star whisper a heated spat in between their plastered, sweet smiles for a photo-shoot. Little does the audience know what lies beneath the surface of those photos.
A lingering shot of autograph seekers following a private and typical father/daughter interaction between Marco and Cleo ignites questions about our fascination and idolisation with celebrities. What must it be like for strangers to love you, to seek out one infinitesimal moment of your time, without truly knowing who you are? As our peek into Johnny’s life demonstrates, having the adoration of strangers means nothing if you do not have a tangible or familial connection with someone who cares for your true self. A hypnotic sequence of Johnny Marco with special effects makeup artists epitomises Coppola’s Hollywood exposé. The artists envelop Johnny within a white plaster that covers his entire head and eyes and leaves nothing but the two holes of his nostrils. Johnny is left alone in deafening silence to let the plaster settle, save for the lone sound of the phone ringing to indicate that he will quickly be forgotten. Coppola methodically zooms into the eerie image of Johnny’s head encased within the white plaster, symbolic of the Hollywood prison that entombs him, shuts him off from the world, and elides his humanity. The masks of Universal Studios monsters sit behind him to underpin the scene’s frightening sense of hyper-reality and disconnect that is the world of cinema. Eventually the special effects artist show Johnny the fruits of their wizardry. Remade as an old man, Johnny gazes into the mirror at an unsettling glimpse into the future. If he doesn’t change his ways now, before he knows it he will be an old man filled with lots of regrets.
Somewhere is one of Sofia Coppola’s most underrated films, yet it remains emblematic of her extraordinary directorial vision. She retreads familiar themes within her cannon such as surface vs. inner realities and the nature of celebrity through a quiet and hypnotic mise en scene. Somewhere requires patience, for Coppola chooses to let private moments breathe and play out in full in an awkward and lingering docu-style. Coppola draws out Johnny Marco’s impetrating loneliness through this soft stillness. Despite how the plot may sound, this father/daughter story remains true to life and never succumbs to saccharine pandering. While some critics denoted this film as the privileged whining about being privileged, Coppola’s experiences on her nomadic childhood and lifetime association with the nature of celebrity is still an important story to be heard. She reveals how our idols are still people with humane complexities and struggles and not just objects for our consumption, despite how much la la land’s publicity machine wants us to believe otherwise. Somewhere remains a fascinating look behind the curtain that is the Hollywood Oz.
by Caroline Madden
Caroline hails from the home state of her hero, Bruce Springsteen. She has an infinite and ever-expanding list of favorite films, but her top three will always be Dog Day Afternoon, Raging Bull, and The Lord of the Rings. Caroline loves cheesy 1980s teen comedies, Mad Men, young Al Pacino, and films with moving musical sequences. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies and writes for her blog acinematicvision.com. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss and Instagram @crolins