Film Peaks: Finding Meaning in Banality in ‘Somewhere’

Sofia Coppola shows us the transformative power of genuine connection in her quiet meditation on a father-daughter relationship.

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There’s a scene in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere where Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) takes his eleven-year-old daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) to her ice skating lesson. Cleo starts practicing her routine, set to Gwen Stefani’s ‘Cool’. Johnny isn’t really paying attention; he seems bored, replies to a text on his phone, only looking up every now and then. The camera focuses on Cleo, following her movements across the ice, and briefly, we watch an uninterrupted stretch of her routine. The camera isn’t looking away. When it cuts back to Johnny, we realize he isn’t either: somewhere along the way, Cleo has caught and held his attention. 

This trip to the ice rink takes place early in the movie, and is one of our first introductions to Cleo and her relationship with her father. It’s especially striking as it comes on the heels of two scenes that also feature Johnny as a spectator, which take place only a few minutes prior — the scenes where he watches twins pole dance for him in his bedroom. Both times, Johnny watches from his bed with heavy eyes, almost disinterested, as the dancers perform careful choreography with a suggestiveness that borders on clinical. In one scene, Johnny misidentifies one of the twins as her sister. In another, he falls asleep as the dance ends, and the dancers pack up and leave without waking him. 

In contrast, as Johnny watches Cleo glide across the ice, there’s a spark in his eyes that wasn’t present before. He now dons a slight furrow to his brow and a sense of focus — he forgets his phone, absorbed instead into the present moment. In the ice rink, he isn’t expected to do anything but be there. But with Cleo’s ice skating skills, watching her skate, Johnny seems to connect, for the first time, with what, and who, he’s looking at — someone who isn’t looking back at him. 

On the way to drop Cleo off at his ex-wife’s house, he says, “You’re really good. When’d you learn how to ice skate?” Her smile fades, and she replies: “I’ve been going for three years.”

If Johnny seems checked out of his daughter’s life, it’s because he’s checked out of his own. A successful actor, he lives in a perpetual holiday at the Chateau Marmont, spending his days drunk, asleep, or entwined with various women, often a mixture of all three. Cleo steps in and out of his life intermittently, or at least it seems that way to Johnny, who has little grasp of the days of the week — “Shouldn’t you be at school?” he asks when she comes to visit, to which she says, “It’s Sunday.” His life is marked by transience — an unfixed schedule, a room that doesn’t actually belong to him, a hotel marked by an influx and outflow of strangers. It’s striking that though he lives in a hotel — a site defined by constant, bustling activity — he spends so much of his time alone, even when he’s in a crowd of people. His attempts to connect, however shallowly, with other people, seem to fail due to his own bad habits: drugged out and drunk, he falls asleep midway through sex with a stranger. There’s a sense that even when he’s here, he isn’t really here. He moves through life as if in a dream, or a suspended reality; if he wants something (be it drugs, or the attention of a woman), it seems he need only ask. Despite this — or rather, because of it — he remains at a remove from the world. With fame and fortune part of the natural course of his life, Johnny falls back on patterns of destructive behavior. The movie opens to a still-camera shot of a Ferrari driving around in circles, again and again, for over a minute and a half — Johnny is going nowhere. 

With a script sparse in dialogue, Somewhere relies largely on scenes like this, long shots filled with silence or diegetic music. What this results in is a movie composed of vignettes. Somewhere takes on the rhythm of Johnny’s life, a slow and meandering existence that at times feels pointless, suffused with excess, fame, and loneliness.

As Somewhere progresses, Johnny often takes a passive role — the role of an object, a figurehead, a trophy, a Ken doll. He occupies the limelight and smiles for the camera; women catch his eye in the hotel lobby, in corridors, across roads. A model flashes him, unsolicited, as he leans across his balcony. At a press conference, questions come from reporters across the world, one of whom asks him, point-blank, “Who is Johnny Marco?” — a question that Johnny is unsure how to answer: After all, who really is Johnny Marco, stripped of face, his fame, and his name which are what everyone idolizes? Midway through the film, Johnny takes Cleo along on a work trip to Italy, where he receives excited attention in a language he doesn’t even understand. At an award ceremony that takes place entirely in Italian, he begins an awkward acceptance speech, only for a dance routine to start up behind him unexpectedly. Unsure of what to do, Johnny just stands on the stage, while the audience looks on at him in the spotlight. It’s a striking moment, one that typifies the patterns he’s used to — the constant attention, combined with a strange lack of personhood. As an actor, his actual work involves pretending to be someone else. On stage, before he even has the opportunity to speak, he is reduced merely to an object — something to be looked at, to be used and be of use. The general public doesn’t care about getting to know the person behind the acting.

Which is not to say Johnny doesn’t treat other people as objects. There’s a clear implication that he treats the women in his life as disposable. A woman berates him for essentially forgetting her after they slept together, yelling at him in earshot of reporters and his daughter. He also receives multiple texts from an unknown number through the film — things like, “Why are you such an asshole?” and “What’s your fucking problem?”. It’s never explained who’s sending these texts, but it adds to the evidence of how he treats other people — he doesn’t seem particularly surprised by them, and they become an expected part of the tapestry of his days. Johnny is almost a ghost in his own life, existing the only way he seems to know how, stuck in patterns that reinforce themselves, and drawn to relationships that are as transitory as his daily life. It seems as if most of his interactions with other people are transactional. Either he expects something of them — a service performed by pole dancers and waiters, or attention from a woman — or they expect something of him — the thrill of sleeping with a big name, perhaps, or a momentary brush with fame. 

Cleo’s entrance into Johnny’s life introduces a new routine. At first she comes by only occasionally, and eventually stays with him for a few days before heading to summer camp. Johnny makes space in his life to accommodate her. Her physical presence in his life prompts a slew of necessary changes — gone are the parties and pole dancers. Johnny doesn’t find these changes easy  — in Italy, he succumbs to temptation and sneaks out to sleep with a woman he meets in the lobby. When she joins them at the breakfast table the next day, Cleo looks at him with a gaze that can only be described as accusatory. But Cleo makes changes in her father’s world — she carefully prepares a meal for herself, Johnny, and his friend, garnishing and plating it with care; a far cry from her father’s tendency to pile up room service trays. 

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If the monotony of Johnny’s life is mirrored in the rhythm of the film, so too is the possibility of escape. There’s plenty of scenes where Coppola drives her point home without subtlety — “Who is Johnny Marco?” — but there’s also much left unsaid in the monotonous rhythm of life, shown to us in quiet moments, inferred from body language, silences, and absences. The ice skating scene is one of these moments, an extended glimpse into an ordinary moment in daily life, that says so much with no words. Confronting us with the same shot for longer than feels comfortable — toeing the line between depicting ennui and boring the audience — is an invitation to Johnny, and to the viewer, to find meaning in banality. He finds it most in moments with Cleo — watching her skate, playing Guitar Hero together, eating the meals she creates from scratch. In one of the most memorable moments in the movie, set to The Strokes’ ‘I’ll Try Anything Once’, Johnny and Cleo spend a summer day by the hotel pool, playing table tennis and sunning themselves with no agenda. It’s a genuinely joyous moment of connection, and the idea of having no agenda stays throughout the film, but Coppola shows Johnny finding meaning in the monotony.

Sofia Coppola is known for her stories of (usually) female characters who find themselves out of step with the world around them, like Lux (Kirsten Dunst) in The Virgin Suicides, Marie (also Kirsten Dunst) in Marie Antoinette, or Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) in Lost in Translation. These characters are often young — at a stage in life where they find themselves on the cusp of childhood and “real life”, as it were. In Somewhere, she approaches Johnny with the same compassion as she offers her frequent;y female characters experiencing the cusp of girlhood and adulthood, showing the viewer his flaws alongside his vulnerabilities. He, too, is caught between a suspended existence and the possibility of “real life.” In Somewhere, Coppola reminds us of the fact that “growing up” isn’t contained to your teenage years, that there always is the possibility for change — or escape.

Cleo’s ice skating routine (performed by Fanning herself, not a stunt double!) is an early moment where we see the possibility of Johnny bridging the gap between himself and the world. Cleo’s movements are careful, fumbling, and realistic — she stumbles on the ice, jumps and lands with awkward grace. The routine plays out in its three-minute entirety, and Johnny’s reactions are all in real time. In this moment, he is neither the object of someone’s gaze, nor a participant in some kind of unspoken transaction. There is a genuineness to his focus, evident especially in the slight look of surprise as he looks at his daughter and realizes he is amazed by her. 

Cleo and Johnny’s dynamic is the heart of Somewhere, a story that begins at that very ice rink. Although Johnny wasn’t always present in his daughter’s life, it doesn’t really seem to matter; in minutes, she is all smiles again. Cleo offers Johnny the space to make mistakes, a luxury he doesn’t receive from anyone else — perhaps because they feel they’ve given him one too many chances. After she leaves for camp, he seems to reevaluate his life, seeing it anew, making obvious, concrete changes to his life, a reevaluation spurred by her presence. He cleans up his endless trays of room service. He checks out of the hotel, gets into his car, and starts driving. The movie ends how it starts: only this time, Johnny gets out of the car, and walks away from it, a faint smile on his face. Johnny Marco is no longer driving in circles: he’s going somewhere.

Towards the end of the movie, Johnny puts Cleo in a cab to take her to camp. He stands under the roar of a helicopter and yells, “Sorry I haven’t been around.” It isn’t clear if she hears or not, but as her taxi drives away, she grins widely, waving goodbye. Perhaps that’s the point of it all — the hope offered by a connection that has space for forgiveness, for growth, for unconditional love, despite what it took to get there. Like Gwen Stefani sings, as Cleo skates and Johnny looks on in awe: “After all that we’ve been through / I know we’re cool.”

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