What is Sofia Coppola’s latest film, Somewhere? It’s a Hollywood film about Hollywood that completely ignores the rules of traditional narrative filmmaking, of indie filmmaking too: The one (false start of a) montage consists of only one shot, the film willfully crosses “the line” just once, and it also has just one jarring jump cut. These choices are so subtle and deliberate that they don’t call attention to the radical and specific choices Coppola has made throughout. This experimental pop film stands on its own, peerless and without precedent, at least in the movies.
It’s only in relationship to music that I can position the film. With its sugar-pop harmonies created out of flowing waves of dissonance, Somewhere is like Nowhere, the 1990 album from the British band Ride that was a key work in the shoegaze movement (also known as “the scene that celebrates itself,” not unlike the criticisms often unfairly hurled at Coppola). The film kicks in with a hum; a low sound, like the sound of a car’s revving engine, rides underneath the rock song that accompanies the opening credits, enveloping and overwhelming the viewer till he is disarmed.
That use of gorgeously subtle sound design and perfectly timed credits is a Sofia Coppola signature that she seems to have bettered through simplification in this film. So many Coppola themes and settings, in fact, return here: hotel hallways, banal small talk, banal movie-industry talk, the shifting light from a car window, and all the things left unsaid—but here she gets them just right. The story feels familiar to her worldview as well. Johnny Marco, a name meant to be a type as much as a character, is a ‘90s throwback in a Sub Pop shirt (as played by ‘90s throwback Stephen Dorff), an action star and absent father who’s becoming, as the director described it, “the old guy at the club.” The film about his reconnection with his daughter doesn’t follow a traditional story arc though. Instead, it’s tightly divided into three sections in which Dorff successfully plays three different men.
The first, almost wordless section is all abstraction, as the viewer watches Dorff watching everything from a jaded, disconnected distance. This doubled distance leads to extended shots of bodies simply moving which are almost experimental films in themselves. Particularly of note here are the two scenes of twin strippers who arrive at his Chateau Marmont hotel room with collapsible poles, and don’t quite dance but move to music ceaselessly. These scenes bookend a scene of Dorff’s daughter (Elle Fanning) ice-skating, also not quite dancing and not quite posing, but somewhere in between. No filmmaker observes women’s bodies moving with as much attention as Coppola. It’s a reminder that women’s bodies in other films are quickly presented as either flawless or flawed, but here every shape and every stretch is fascinating for minutes at a time. With the aid of real film and natural light, Coppola also lingers on the textures of these different bodies: the familiar Los Angeles flash of gold jewelry, gray sweats, highlighted gold hair, and a frappachino in hand; Italian skin in white eyelet or shimmery gold fabric; and artificially tanned bouncing buttocks contrasted with candy-striped pink cotton.
In the second section, Dorff relearns how to participate, as he watches with surprise, glee, and disorientation how his daughter is becoming a woman. It’s as if in seeing her beauty through a desexualized lens, he finally sees women as women, not groupies, and he awakens to his new role as protector, not consumer. The film shows masculinity from an objective distance, with details (the bedside table decorated with beer bottles and pills, the apple box he has to stand on for a photo op with a tall actress, and groans of pleasure cut short when he falls asleep during cunnilingus) that perhaps only a woman would note. To emphasize this objective yet stubbornly female gaze, the stationary camera remains low throughout (from the same low height that the short Chantal Ackerman filmed Jeanne Dielman, a film Ackerman said was literally from her own point of view, and which DP Harris Savides screened for Coppola before shooting this film) so that characters have to duck into the frame or have their heads cut off, a little.
Then there is the final section, which is in some ways a repeat of the settings of the first section, but in which Dorff is now humanized. This particular evolution is inevitable, of course, but presented in a style and structure that’s quietly revolutionary and totally assured. Most interesting is the distillation, but not complete absence of, overwrought dialogue. When the Dorff character does finally try to reveal his inner turmoil through words, it simply falls flat.