We are almost a year into a global pandemic that is not going anywhere soon and, along with it, we have adapted to a new way of living. It is safe to say that when life has felt overwhelming, it has been comforting to turn to various kinds of entertainment to provide relief. In general, some people are still accustomed to the idea that films need to constantly be moving forward, with much unfolding all at once, to hold our attention or curiosity. The complete opposite might then be films with seemingly no plot, where things unravel at their own pace, as we follow certain characters in their everyday lives.
Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, a film that last month celebrated ten years since its general release in the UK and US, is often considered a film where nothing special happens. However, defining (or deciding) when and where a film goes from portraying “nothing” into “something” is all up for interpretation. This anniversary piece will analyse how Somewhere is highly purposeful as it depicts real life, including portrayals of ennui and depression, along with an evolving father-daughter relationship.
Right from the opening shot, Coppola demands her viewers to slow down and observe as she establishes one of the film’s themes – ennui – by focusing on a black Ferrari circling an empty racetrack on an overcast day. The car, and its driver, have no real destination besides going in these circles. Lap after lap, the car goes in and out of a stationary camera view. When the driver eventually gets out of the car, he looks neither excited nor happy but rather indifferent. With only this opening, Coppola has already provided us with several clues to her main character before we are even properly introduced to him.
Somewhere follows famous actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) as he is recovering from a minor injury at the legendary Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. He has been there long enough to know the staff, but his suite – scattered with filled ashtrays, empty bottles and prescription drugs (including Propecia for hair loss) – shows no signs of a home. Visible throughout the film is an artwork by Ed Ruscha titled “Cold Beer Beautiful Girls” (1993). Left abandoned against a wall, it perfectly acts as a symbol of Johnny’s indifference as he can not be bothered to hang it up. The things in Johnny’s suite do not feel homely; they are just there, just like him.
Johnny always has someone telling him what to do. Therefore, when he is alone, he resorts to his usual vices. These moments are effectively portrayed through scenes where nothing happens besides the passage of time, for instance, by showing Johnny drinking beers and smoking entire cigarettes on camera. Every day there is a new woman – it does not matter that he can barely tell them apart, stay awake or recall the potential encounters they might have had before. His days blend into each other, like an aimless alcoholic daze he might have welcomed in the beginning but now can not seem to either control or enjoy. Even though the film is terse in revealing the causes behind it, it is obvious that Johnny is questioning if his life has any real purpose or value. However, things shift when his ex-wife suddenly leaves their eleven-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) in his care.
One of the first things Johnny does with Cleo is accompanying her to a figure skating practice. While sitting far up in the empty stadium, he is at first fully engrossed in his phone, but by the end, he focuses on Cleo as she skates in her sparkly light blue figure skating dress to Gwen Stefani’s “Cool”. Stefani’s song chronicles a relationship in which two lovers have separated but remain friends, summed up in the line, “after all that we’ve been through, I know we’re cool.” While a different kind of relationship, Johnny and Cleo have survived things (the divorce along with the difficulty of not spending much time together) that easily could have created a bigger divide between them. Every time they meet, they are happy to see each other. However, that does not mean that there is no hurt underneath them “being cool.” When Cleo realises that Johnny pays attention to her on the ice, she can not help but break out a smile. Her smile quickly disappears when Johnny in the car ride home asks in wonder when she learned to ice-skate – clueless that she has already devoted three years of her life to it.
Instead of showing Johnny on film sets, we follow along as he interacts with other parts of the industry. One of the most prominent obligations is equal parts claustrophobic and peaceful, as Johnny gets a life-cast made at a special-effects department. For almost two minutes, the camera focuses on Johnny, slowly creeping closer as we hear his breathing. Once again, Coppola demands her viewers to observe while simultaneously creating some fascinating symbolism. At this moment, he is faceless, which seems fitting for a man who thinks of himself as nothing and no one. Even the very act of making a mould of himself – a copy of sorts – only highlights the idea that Johnny is nothing underneath his surface. In hindsight, it feels quite fitting that Coppola – who has lazily often been accused of only showcasing style and no substance in her filmography – created a character that during the majority of the film comes across as an empty shell.
Dismissing Somewhere as a film where nothing happens does not feel fair, or at least feels too simplistic. Despite being released more than ten years ago, its reflections on solitude and ennui feel very fitting to the feelings many of us have experienced throughout the pandemic. Watching Somewhere almost feels healing, and the mundane things that happen feel comforting. As ridiculous as it might sound, it is comforting to see Johnny make the same mistake I always do, namely using a too-small colander to put his big portion of boiled pasta in, just to spill some in the sink.
Somewhere does not consist of explosive twists and big gestures. Instead, it is a film about the smaller details that sometimes speaks louder – as in forehead kisses, safely leaning against someone until you eventually fall asleep or in the ways shared glances communicate more than words. The intimacy of these gestures is further heightened since a majority of the film takes place within the limited but familiar walls of hotels and their surroundings. Sometimes staying at hotels might evoke feelings of adventure, especially since you are often far from your usual routines. This casual spontaneity is evident when, in the middle of the night, Johnny and Cleo decide to try all flavours of gelato that is offered by room service. However, above all, staying at a hotel often means living someplace where you have no past and where many responsibilities disappear as you usually do not have to clean, do laundry or cook. Besides paying for your stay and not breaking any rules or laws, no one expects much else of you. You are free to do nothing, but you are also allowed to continue to dwell in your inner darkness.
At one point in the film, Cleo talks about Twilight (2005), explaining that it is about a girl that is in love with a vampire and therefore she cannot be with him. “Why doesn’t she become one, too?”, Johnny asks. “Because she can’t, he doesn’t want to turn her into a vampire, and if she gets too close to him, he won’t be able to help himself,” Cleo explains. Just as vampires can be described as monsters due to their nature, Johnny can be seen as the “monster” in the father-daughter relationship. Cleo’s soul is one of innocence, unlike her father’s “monstrosity” (e.g., his addiction, depression and insecurities). Johnny is afraid that Cleo will see him for what he is and reject him, but also that he might hurt her beyond repair. He is convinced that he is doing her a favour by keeping a distance, while simultaneously protecting himself from the pain her rejection would imply. Instead, he lives in his bubble where no one demands more of him or thinks that he can do better – not even himself.
At one point in the film, a reporter asks who Cleo is after seeing her name on Johnny’s cast. This exchange tells us that Cleo is not a known part of his public life – a decision probably made to protect her, that later might have backfired. Above all, Johnny is afraid of the thought of her seeing the real him – as any other monster in hiding would. Johnny’s self-loathing feeds his addiction, but it also helps to keep him trapped within it. “You think you’re such hot shit, don’t you?” says one of several anonymous text messages Johnny receives throughout the film. As we are fully aware that he does not think highly of himself, seeing him never deleting these messages but rather revisiting them both affirms and strengthens his own self-loathing.
When Johnny and Cleo lock eyes during the breakfast scene in Italy – as Johnny’s latest fling sits nearby – it does not go as Johnny might have feared. It is not an overtly emotional scene as Cleo is very reserved, but the look in her eyes conveys everything. At this moment, Cleo knows who her father is and knows that he, during their trip, left her alone for the remainder of the night to casually meet up with an unknown woman (that even stuck around for breakfast and took the liberty to think that she was interested in small talk). When Johnny sees Cleo’s reaction, he reaches a sort of self-realisation that he has not experienced before. While Johnny was fully aware of who he was; now Cleo knows as well and that is worse. However, she does not abandon or reject him. If anything, Cleo understands Johnny better than himself. She appears to be disappointed, echoing how parents feel when they know that their children are better than the decisions they make.
When Cleo stays with him, she does not solely force him to reevaluate his life, but she also breaks his destructive cycle. Instead of putting the “asshole” label on her father and moving on without him, she sticks around. She sticks around because that is what she wants Johnny to do. Leaving Johnny would have been easy, and it is what Johnny was anticipating, but it would not lead to anything more than the bubble closing up around Johnny all over again.
Towards the end of the film, it is revealed that Cleo is also wrestling with her own fear, albeit a different kind – she is afraid that her mother might leave her just like Johnny did. When this painful secret of Cleo’s inner turmoil is out in the open, Johnny is forced to come to terms with the fact that he – even though she often seems happy – deeply hurt Cleo. She is a constant reminder of something good he made out of his life and seeing her pain, caused by his actions, is difficult. He kept a distance because he thought that was the pain-free option, but the distance in itself resulted in more pain.
The development of Johnny and Cleo’s relationship through the course of the film is very tender. Cleo almost mothers her father, making macaroni and cheese and eggs Benedict without assistance to surprise him, but she also looks at him with the wide-eyed adoration of a child. She does not care about his professional successes, she loves him despite them, and all she wants is for him to stick around. At the beginning of the film, Cleo signs Johnny’s cast with her name and a heart. It does not matter that it will be filled with phone numbers, the names of various women and lipstick prints when he takes it off – Cleo was there first. Additionally, her name is permanently imprinted on his skin higher up his arm. First and foremost, Johnny is Cleo’s father.
During their last day together, there is a sense of fleeting joy that lingers over the day as they make up for lost time. Accompanied by an electric piano, Julian Casablancas tenderly sings “I’ll Try Anything Once” as we follow along when Johnny and Cleo play table tennis, play in the swimming pool and sunbathe. “There is a time when we all fail/Some people take it pretty well/Some take it all out on themselves/Others they just take it out on friends,” sings Casablancas. We all fail in life – one way or another – but it is not necessarily our failures that define us, but how we handle them. Johnny is not someone who took his failures and shortcomings in life well. Instead, he took them out on himself and neglected Cleo in the process.
While having an underwater tea party, Johnny looks truly happy for the first time. The big genuine smile is so unlike the others he has done before for photographs or during meaningless encounters. Afterwards, we see Johnny and Cleo sunbathing in a close shot. “How are you doing?” Johnny asks and it is worth noting that he asks this frequently to Cleo, as if he is unsure if she enjoys his company. Soon the camera starts zooming out and, what at first seemed like only them, other people suddenly appear nearby. The people around them do not exist in their world; they are only background noise. This scene, and how it is executed, further exemplifies how their relationship is the core of everything.
After saying goodbye as Cleo leaves for camp, Johnny suddenly turns around and shouts her name. Cleo, already in the taxi, looks out of the window. “I’m sorry I haven’t been around,” Johnny yells over the loud noise from the nearby helicopter. We can barely make out the words, and Cleo can not hear them at all. It is bittersweet, but also kind of perfect. Cleo might not have heard him, but it is out there in the open and eventually, she will.
On his way home, Johnny silently cries and later tearfully breaks down on the phone to his ex-wife as he admits, “I’m fucking nothing. I’m not even a person.” In a later verse in Casablancas’ “I’ll Try Anything Once,” he sings, “Everybody was well dressed/And everybody was a mess.” Serving as a reminder that appearances are deceptive, the lines suit Johnny’s situation of being a complete mess internally while trying to seem carefree and somewhat put together on the outside. With Cleo gone, most likely the only person who saw and admired Johnny outside of his profession and fame, who is he? During an earlier press conference, a journalist even asks the question, “Who is Johnny Marco?”, as the camera is zooming in on a clueless Johnny with seemingly no answer. I guess it is time for Johnny to finally figure that out.
Subconsciously, Cleo made Johnny reassess everything about his life, and as he now knows what his life could be like, it does not seem as tempting to turn back to how it was before. Johnny is not a monster; he is just fighting against himself and his inner turmoil. But so is Cleo. Johnny might have thought that his actions solely hurt himself, but that is not true. Only by being honest with each other they can heal and connect. No matter how scary it might feel, it is all they can do – it is all any of us can ever do. The pain and mundanity of everyday life might feel overwhelming, and, especially now, isolating and lonely. But when you share the burden, it gets easier. After all, there is a very noticeable difference between Johnny stumbling down an empty hallway at the Chateau Marmont alone to him later returning down the same hallways while carrying his daughter on his shoulders both laughing.
The ending of Somewhere entails a change of scenery as Johnny leaves the environment that no longer is appealing to him. The film ends with Johnny leaving his Ferrari – a symbol of his previous lifestyle – by an empty desert road outside of town with its keys in the ignition. As he walks away, the car’s alarm joins in with the beat in Phoenix’s “Love Like a Sunset Part II”, until the song takes over completely.
“A visible horizon/Right where it starts and ends,” sings Thomas Mars. While the horizon can refer to several meanings, it can be used to describe the limits of someone’s experiences and knowledge. At this point in the film, Johnny has discovered a range of new insights about his life – he has “broadened his horizons” – and is simultaneously ending his old life and starting a new one.
“Oh, where it starts, it ends/Love like a sunset,” Mars later sings. While he might compare love to a sunset as it is fleeting, it can also refer to life itself since nothing lasts forever. Johnny still has a chance at redemption; to do things differently before it is too late. A monumental step for him is ending his relationship with the environment that helped create and enable his old self. We see a hint of a smile across his face as he walks away just before the screen goes black. It is the kind of smile you would miss if you blinked or were not paying attention, but it is more than enough to indicate that Johnny is not stagnant anymore. No, he is moving, and even though he might not be sure about where he is going yet, it is somewhere.
by Rebecca Rosen
Rebecca Rosén (she/her) is a writer from Sweden with a university background in film, TV and gender studies. While enjoying everything from extremely silly to gory, she thinks that it’s better if you care a little bit too much about what you’re watching than not at all. You can find her on Twitter.
Categories: Anything and Everything, Films, Women Film-makers
You have written with such care and delicate touch that reading this was akin to grasping a novel’s chapter.
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