Lost At the Chateau Marmont

From party girl to Oscar winner, Sofia Coppola's journey to 'Somewhere'

In every conceivable way, Somewhere represents a scaling back. Costuming was essentially a subplot in Marie Antoinette, and Milena Canonero’s wardrobe design won a much-deserved Oscar accordingly. In Somewhere, Dorff has exactly three looks: a tuxedo in one scene, a post-shower towel in a couple of them, and a T-shirt and jeans through the rest of the film. And while the Chateau may be exclusive, it’s hardly Versailles—Somewhere’s production design aimed to present it with as little gloss as possible.

“When you make a movie, the attitude generally is just bring everything—every light, every stand, every tool, every lens—because that’s just kind of the culture of movies: Have everything at hand, and then you won’t be lacking for something,” Roman Coppola says. “The vibe of Sofia’s movie was one of being really intimate, and so we didn’t want all that stuff, all the extra people and all the extra tools. If a guy had to ash his cigarette, he would just use the ashtray that was there, and if not, he would just use the glass from the kitchen cupboard, and if not, he’d just ash out the window. That was the attitude: naturalistic, authentic to that place.”

But the biggest point of departure may be Somewhere’s soundtrack. Marie Antoinette essentially plays out as a series of music videos set to period-imperfect source cues from Adam Ant and the Strokes. That sensibility—MTV-influenced but personal—has long been a Sofia Coppola trademark, dating back to the montages set to Heart singles in Virgin Suicides. Somewhere is short on both music and montage. It’s her first film that prizes natural, diegetic sound—including music that’s organically part of a scene, as in two sequences involving rent-a-strippers—over an artfully chosen, hipster-baiting soundtrack.

“I was getting kind of tired of movies that just have pop song after pop song as the score—I did that before,” Coppola says. “I wanted to see how little we could use music.” Some scenes are so quiet that sounds that otherwise would seem incidental almost boom on the soundtrack, as in a long take of Johnny in his hotel room, in which there’s so little going on that the sound of his cigarette burning almost seems to echo.

“I found sitting there smoking a cigarette with nothing [to say] one of the most challenging things,” Dorff says. “Because if I’m ‘acting’ for one second, the movie’s done.”

*     *     *

Somewhere is a film that asks us to pay non-withering attention to the ennui of the beautiful, rich and famous, made by a woman who is beautiful, rich and second-generation famous. That alone is enough to inspire knee-jerk negative reactions. When Somewhere won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in September, where it was in competition against such formidable contenders as Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, some journalists cried foul at the fact that the jury for the prize included Quentin Tarantino, whom Coppola dated briefly after divorcing Jonze and before taking up with Mars. (For her part, Sofia jokes that she would have assumed her past relationship with Tarantino would be a handicap, not a help.)

Some Somewhere critics complain that “nothing happens” in the movie; others suggest she should have gone further with the avant-garde inspirations, studio-subsidiary distributor be damned. Coppola also has been accused of treading familiar ground: the story of a man at a crisis point who has a relationship with a female 25 years his junior—in a luxury hotel? Again?

It’s fair to point to Somewhere’s resemblance to Lost In Translation, but the similarities between the films needn’t be pejorative. Somewhere seems to systematically revisit certain scenes and elements of Translation, but it approaches them with added distance, wisdom and grace. A press-conference scene that existed to mock a brainless starlet in Translation has been refashioned in Somewhere to show sympathy for the celebrity. Both films deal with a very specific side effect of fame: the loneliness of being wanted by strangers, yet having no one to talk to. Translation leavens that loneliness with wry comedy and by offering its sad actor the hope of a quasi-romance. There’s very little comedy in Somewhere, and in the world it describes, romantic relationships don’t exist; women offer Johnny only easy sex and angry texts. If Johnny’s complicated relationship with his preteen daughter is a temporary comfort, it’s also a reminder of his inability to sustain a connection or make a commitment of any kind.

In both films, the big event is that the characters, self-obsessed and wound too tight, lose themselves in a moment that can’t be sustained, but Translation and Somewhere milk ephemera for different emotional results. Lost In Translation’s Rorschach-blot conclusion may be ambiguous, but it’s undeniably exhilarating. At Somewhere’s equally enigmatic end, Johnny makes a Big, Symbolic, Potentially Life-Changing Gesture that could lead to positive change—but for the moment, more than ever, he’s rootless and utterly alone. The parallels between the two films point to their key difference: Coppola’s increasingly mature point of view.

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