I’ve always liked the texture and timing of Sofia Coppola’s films. The Virgin Suicides‘ use of slow motion and Heart; Bill Murray’s drifting in Lost in Translation; the use of contemporary music against arcane formality in Marie Antionette – boosted by Jason Schwartzman’s wonderful portraryal of the ever-dull Louis XVI.
Her new film Somewhere establishes the tedium of A-list actor Johnny Marco’s world well, with long scenes and static cameras. Marco is a millionaire playboy actor living in room 59 of the famous Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. Most of the film cycles through tedium after tedium: the twin prostitutes who get him to sleep at night, a head-mold for film make-up, driving circles in his Ferrari.
Coppola ironically pronounces the abscence of culture in the life of this actor; he travels to Italy and sees only the inside of the airport and his hotel. In the day-to-day record of his life, he never once reads a book. His life is made up of sex and appointments that he has little role in organising – excepting perhaps his prostitutes. A little know fact of the lives of the rich is that so much of their lives are organised by paid help (personal assistants, trainers, stylists, art buyers &c.); in this case his agent who calls him each morning to telling him where to be when.
This life of tedium is sort of interrupted when his ex-partner dumps their daughter Cleo on him without notice. Coppola tries to develop sympathy for Marco through the relationship with his daughter. Will Cleo give some content to Marco’s empty life? Not really. He is oblivious as a close friend hits on his 11 year-old-daughter while they draw and play video games.
While the tone and timing of the film are good, and reminded me of what Coppola does well, she has totally failed to develop a character that draws any sympathy. Marco is an emotional void. It isn’t actor Stephen Dorf’s fault. He plays the party flawlessly, replete with dreadful hair, it is just that the character concept is totally unsympathetic. Are we really to pitty the millionaire actor as he sits within molding clay? Or drives another lap in his Ferrari? Or watches twin prostitutes pole dance in his bedroom … again?
When the character breaks down during a near-penultimate scene it is simply one more tedium to endure; but it’s a tedium you realise is non-diagetic. Coppola’s resolution shows Johnny Marco check-out of the Marmont, drive out of LA in his Ferrari and then dump the sports car on a country road. He walks away from the car smiling, happy at last. The wonderful irony of this exodus from wealth is that he calls room service to pack his things for him. Another ‘help’ to help him ‘down shift‘ – something like a false renunciation.
I think this is one of the most woeful stories of modernity: the wealthy grieved by their wealth. Perhaps instead of dreaming of being movie millionaries, we ought to be dreaming of being movie millionaires that renounce their wealth. I can hear the pop song now: ‘I want to renounce being a billionaire…’ The unsympathetic Marco is likely unsympathetic precisely because this proposition is so unsympathetic. The film’s lovely texture, and a Black Flag t-shirt, couldn’t save it from from its trite moralism.