I saw Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere on its opening night in Australia, at a cineplex on the top floor of a vast mall in the middle of the suburban sprawl of Sydney’s North Shore. There was only one other party in the large stadium-style theater, bringing attendance to a grand total of maybe five people. When I opened my M&Ms, the sound of paper tearing echoed through the theater as through an empty cavern. It was pretty depressing.

But the lack of a vibe suited the film, right from the opening shot of a Ferrari circling again and again around an empty track in a California wasteland. The static, long-range shot goes on unedited for several minutes, the car running mindlessly in and out of the frame on its circuit. Roger Ebert has often quoted an old film exhibitor: “If nothing’s happened by the end of the first reel, nothing’s going to happen.” Uh, yeah – is that a bad thing?

Sofia Coppola’s work is all about emptiness. Her characters are always privileged and popular people who are lost, suffering from existential ennui, in danger of being annihilated by the social apparatus they serve – whether it’s the entertainment industry (Lost in Translation) or the French aristocracy (Marie Antoinette). She’s back to meditating on show business. This is the world she was raised in and she knows it through and through.

The owner of the Ferrari is a Hollywood leading man named Johnny Marco (played by Stephen Dorff) who’s between projects and adrift, self-exiled in Hollywood’s infamous Chateau Marmont hotel. He drifts from one party to another in an alcoholic stupor, engaging in mindless sex with whatever blonde happens to be available.

This is not as glamorous or pop-sleazy as it might sound. Johnny is far from fabulous, far from a hipster, coming across like a regular bloke in jeans and a band T-shirt. He looks like he isn’t sure why he’s world famous. He gets a lot of attention, and has a certain magnetism. But he has no personality. He’s inarticulate and uncomfortable around people (except for strippers) and is treated as little more than a child by his agents and handlers. He’s never had to grow up, never had to think about who he is. He’s forgotten how to feel good.

We spend a lot of lonely time with Johnny. Coppola demands our patience as we watch him stumble through his life, late for appointments, stuck in shallow conversations at parties. Mostly we watch him by himself, in medium shots, at a distance from us and from himself, bored in his hotel room, drinking. A couple of strippers come and go; what we see of them is sort of entertaining, but mostly weird and a little sad. It makes the high life look pretty bleak.

I couldn’t place where I’d seen Dorff before. At first, I thought it was just my own ignorance (I can’t keep track of Hollywood stars, are you kidding?) But I looked up his filmography and realized there’s no particular reason I should recognize him. He’s most noteworthy for a supporting role in Blade. This relative anonymity is perfect for the film. Dorff totally inhabits his character. We completely forget we’re watching a performance; sometimes I think he forgets he’s giving one. There are many moments when we’re staring at Johnny as he’s lost in thought, and Hollywood conditioning leads us to expect a flash of insight, a heroic decision, some new resolve. But it remains elusive. Johnny’s a tabula rasa.

The only thing he has going for him in real life is his daughter, Cleo, the adolescent child of a messy divorce, who literally arrives on his doorstep one day. He’s been tasked with looking after her for an indefinite period while her irresponsible mother clears her head. Cleo is a wondrous creature, all gangly limbs and gleaming intelligence and earnestness yet undimmed by her difficult upbringing. (Obviously an analog of Coppola herself.) Elle Fanning’s performance in this role is bright, natural, nearly pitch-perfect. The film sets Cleo’s life-affirming spirit against the void that gnaws at the middle of her father.

Does she change his life? It would happen unequivocally in another kind of film. Here, we’re not sure. Johnny’s love for her is tangible, and very touching. Around her, he seems like a decent person. She, of course, ends up mothering him a bit. But there is hardly a plot, hardly any tension, just a series of sketches as Cleo gets pulled into the running joke that is her father’s life. We observe them interacting. The emotional arc runs silent and deep.

I wasn’t sure about Somewhere while I was watching it. Maybe it was the empty suburban cineplex that weighed heavily on my experience, but my initial thought was that Coppola had set out to show us a meaningless existence and, well, succeeded. I have a lot of patience for slow cinema, but I was dismayed by something lacking here. The film seemed like a shrug followed by a dry sob. I cringed at the thought that Sofia, who is often regarded lightly (especially after Marie Antoinette), had further armed her critics. I was also disappointed by the music, which is much less dynamic and integral to the storytelling than in her other films. The music in Somewhere is largely incidental and often ironic.

Time passed. I thought I would quickly forget about Somewhere. I did not. I find myself thinking of it often. Something about it sticks with me and grows on me, like a deceptively simple melody. I’m not alone in this. When it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, where it premiered, jury president Quentin Tarantino said, “From that first enchanting screening, it grew and grew and grew in our hearts, in our analysis, in our minds and in our affections.” Somewhere now seems like one of the best films I’ve seen recently. Coppola’s minimalist approach somehow softly shapes the story into something that intrigues over time.

In his four-star review of the film, Ebert writes, “Coppola is a fascinating director. She sees, and we see exactly what she sees.” It’s all about the gaze. The scenes where we simply watch things happening are central to the film: the Ferrari circling, the strippers dancing, Cleo figure skating, Johnny pacing around his hotel room. It’s improbably compelling. You’ve got to hand it to editor Sarah Flack, who constructs it all so delicately – when she’s doing her job, you don’t know it. Meanwhile Coppola’s visual storytelling is as indelible as ever, with a strong sense of composition and color, and exquisite use of sunlight – Harris Savides’ cinematography is superb.

There are (somewhat) more structured narrative scenes, but the focus is always on the day-to-day. She creates a kind of documentary fascination, as when Cleo makes brunch for her dad, and we follow each step of the process. Time loses its momentum; we’re just watching a girl cook eggs, as if that was the point, as if it was a cooking show. Each object or activity is approached this way. The film is like a collage of observations.

This organic approach allows the characters and their feelings to resonate. There’s a scene where Johnny says goodbye to a parking attendant at his hotel; it’s such a genuine little moment, the kind of prosaic human interaction you don’t often see in a film. Yet it adds something to our impression of Johnny’s internal crisis. There’s real compassion at work here.

I would place Somewhere in a school of American minimalist cinema along with Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (which was also shot by Savides) and the wonderful films of Kelly Reichardt. But I wonder if it will receive its due. I’m glad it got love at Venice, but I duly note the cold shoulder from Oscar. It falls through the cracks: it’s too quirky and difficult to be a blockbuster, and it won’t ignite passion among the critics and cognoscenti who are easily swayed by the flashy, the extravagantly gritty, the “important.” Somewhere has been called boring, but I find the list of Best Picture nominees boring.

It makes me angry if I really think about it. How many widely-distributed female directors are as independent-minded and true to themselves as Coppola? Is she judged harshly because of her background? If she was the spoiled princess she’s often made out to be, she would have sold out long ago. Marie Antoinette would have been a predictable, overacted epic (starring Cate Blanchett, perhaps) and would have made much more money and maybe gotten a few award nominations. Somewhere could be far more conventional and appealing – mocking the Hollywood game, sure, everyone’s meta these days – but cashing in with big stars and glamor.

Instead she’s doing her own thing with her own vision. She doesn’t make prestige pictures. She doesn’t reformulate her Hollywood upbringing as product – grist for the apparatus – like a lesser talent would do, but she assesses it with the honesty, detachment and adventurous spirit of the indie rock that is such a big influence on her. Her films are often flawed but they have a unique grace and humanity. (At least Tarantino sees it.) Here’s hoping she continues making them just as she pleases for some time yet.

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