A Letter To Elia
Martin Scorsese narrates and co-directs a documentary on the late filmmaker Elia Kazan
On Film4: 20 Apr 2:50AM
Sofia Coppola returns to her Hollywood roots with a portrait of a pampered movie star who unexpectedly finds himself saddled with his 11-year-old daughter.
If you've ever suspected Sofia Coppola's films of being style over substance, artistically self-indulgent, or vacuous, it's time to load your weapon: you're unlikely to find better ammunition than Somewhere. The film opens with a shot of our tortured movie star hero (played by Stephen Dorff, who may or may not be tortured), driving aimlessly around a dusty race circuit in his flash git/tortured movie star Ferrari. It won't be spoiling much to reveal (since it doesn't take much to guess, given the film's title) that we'll be returning to this stonkingly obvious metaphor at the end of the film. But is it worth the measly, predictable payoff?
There's an argument that if Coppola cut the fat from the middle (i.e. most of the film) and ran the opening and closing scenes together Somewhere could've made for a relatively snappy short - granted, one without anything much to say for itself. And there's no problem with a film not having much to say for itself, but if you're going to say nothing much, at least say it entertainingly, yeah? That said, Somewhere - which explores the relationship between tortured movie star (tortured because he's spent years indulging in a hedonistic selfish, shallow lifestyle and is surprised to find himself feeling... oddly... empty) and estranged, tortured child of a movie star, Cleo (Elle Fanning, whose 11-year-old character is actually mostly pretty cute, smart and well-rounded, all things considered) - does have its moments.
A repeat gag in which tortured movie star Johnny sits yawning on his bed as he watches twin pole dancers enact excruciatingly corny dance routines for him is the epitome of luxurious boredom (we can even hear the pole squeaking). It also dovetails nicely with a scene in which Johnny watches Cleo ice-skating – which, at first, seems to be yet another instance of a female performing to music for him like a dancing monkey, but takes on an emotional resonance when Johnny bothers to look up from his mobile at his daughter.
On the subject of the mobile, another frustrating thread dangling from the film is the series of anonymous threatening texts Johnny receives; a narrative byway, which like much else in the film, goes nowhere rather slowly. Not that it's unrealistic for it to go nowhere; more, it just feels symptomatic of a pretty spineless script, that it's yet another element merely left hanging, and a bizarre one at that: like Haneke tried to slip in a sinister modern telecommunication allegory when Coppola nipped to the loo or something. Aiming for a tone and visual aesthetic that's as pared down as her subject matter, this is Coppola's first film in which she doesn't have an achingly cool soundtrack or bombastic production design to hide behind, and it feels disappointingly like a case of the emperor's new clothes. Still, if Coppola's intention was to transmit her protagonist's feelings of ennui and purposelessness to her audience, then hats off to her.
It's hard to believe that the filmmaker responsible for such an evocative, smart debut as The Virgin Suicides could create something so dull. Maybe it's time to stop using your own biography as source material and go back to the bookshelf please, Sofia?
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