The Dalai Lama writes in his book Ethics for a New Millennium: “By nature, the satisfaction material gain can provide us with will be limited to the level of the senses. It is obvious that our needs go beyond the merely sensual.” Sofia Coppola communicates a similar idea in her movie “Somewhere” (2010), a smooth and piercing auteur film that explores the gap between the satisfaction of the senses and the core needs of the human being. “Somewhere” is a character study that draws attention to the dangers of a superficial and carefree lifestyle, cautioning against some of the aspirations that today’s mainstream culture imposes – looking young, living luxuriously, and staying free of emotional commitment. The film’s premiere at the 67th Venice International Film Festival received a record-breaking twelve-minute standing ovation and won the Golden Lion award for Best Picture.
The first scene sets the tone for the film. Coppola presents the protagonist driving a fancy black Ferrari in wide circles in a deserted, empty landscape. He drives lap after lap, getting nowhere, evoking a sense of helplessness and entrapment in a vicious cycle. The scene puts us into the protagonist’s emotional state before we know his story.
The driver of the car is Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a successful Hollywood superstar in his thirties who leads the kind of glamorous lifestyle that many would envy. He lives at the exclusive Chateau Marmont Hotel, a central meet-up for L.A. show business. On a regular basis Johnny hooks up with actresses, hires blonde pole dancers, and comes back to his hotel suite to find exclusive parties. In many ways he lives out the modern American dream. Yet Johnny seems bored and detached, as if the extravagance around him has become a dull routine and he is just going through the motions. The way Coppola portrays excess and an unsettled mood together has led a number of critics to compare “Somewhere” to The Great Gatsby and call Coppola’s style “F. Scott Fitzgerald in film.” The description of the constant stream of people at the parties in Gatsby’s mansion could very well apply to the people Johnny sees – and soon forgets – in his room at Chateau Marmont: “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.” The people that surround Johnny look nice, but to him they are worth as much (or as little) as many others. Both Johnny Marco and Jay Gatsby seem to live in a world that is, as Fitzgerald puts it, “material without being real.”
Something real enters Johnny’s life when his ex-wife comes by and leaves Cleo (Elle Fanning), his sweet eleven-year-old daughter, with him for part of the summer. Cleo leads a normal, grounded life that is in many ways more mature than her father’s. When she enters into his superficial, empty existence that has long been devoid of meaning, he begins to experience the joy of a real emotional connection. A few weeks later when Cleo goes off to summer camp, Johnny starts to feel more lost than ever, leading him into an existential crisis. At one point, he calls Cleo’s mother in tears and tells her, “I am nothing. I’m not a real person.” Spending time with a daughter he cares for becomes his antidote to emptiness and allows him to recognize a void in his life.
Sofia Coppola, the daughter of director Francis Ford Coppola, is familiar with the celebrity culture and the relationship between a daughter and a superstar father. At one point, Francis Ford Coppola even owned the Chateau Marmont Hotel where “Somewhere” is set. “I can relate to being in that world as a kid and I put in my own memories to make it real,” Coppola shared in an interview about the film. In “Somewhere,” she shows a slice of L.A. life, but not in the way it is usually done – not from the visible outside, but from the invisible deep within. As a way to develop her angle, Coppola incorporates the Foo Fighters song, “My Hero,” with lyrics: “There goes my hero, he’s ordinary.” This hero is of course her character Johnny, who she gives one of the most common names in the country, perhaps signaling that although Johnny’s life is in many ways extraordinary, his needs are no different from the needs of other people. She shows that dodging daily real-life problems is what separates her character from daily real-life pleasure and happiness, trapping him in a space of “nowhere.”
Over the course of the film, Coppola portrays Johnny’s inner journey from the lonely “nowhere” closer to a “somewhere” where there is purpose and meaning. The movie presents the seemingly ordinary events of Johnny’s life that lead him to ask the questions: “Where am I going? And where do I want to be?” At the end of “Somewhere,” Johnny checks out of the Chateau Marmont and drives away. He parks his Ferrari, gets out of the car, and leaving his keys in the ignition, walks away. Smiling, he embarks on a journey by foot, this time literally grounded. It is not clear where he is going, but Coppola infuses the scene with an atmosphere of peace and serenity.
“Somewhere” is slow and artful. Its scenes are shot in real time, and every image has more than one layer of meaning. The images create a storyline that is more intricate and complex than traditional, straightforward action. The film is fresh, unpredictable, and engaging. In a style that is subtle and ironic, Coppola exposes some of the core difficulties of our time, such as alienation and a lack of greater purpose, raising the question: “How can a man have everything, and yet have nothing at the same time?” She also touches on the eternal question: “What actually makes a person happy?” Her answer is love – caring for another person’s needs just as deeply as for one’s own gives life meaning. Caring for his daughter is what created the resilience that allowed Johnny to change his life for the better. In “Somewhere,” Coppola emphasizes what matters by showing its absence, suggesting that the senses cannot satisfy the soul and that an apparently weightless lifestyle can weigh heavily with its meaninglessness. Coppola and His Holiness the Dalai Lama seem to agree on what brings joy – the compassionate heart, connection, and common humanity. And it is something that is accessible to all.
About the Author
Elizabeth Pyjov graduated from Harvard University in 2010, magna cum laude, with a degree in Romance Languages and Literatures and Classics as a secondary field. She has worked for the Global Justice in New York City, Italian television at RAI International in Rome, the United Nations in Geneva, and at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford Medical School. Elizabeth is fluent in Russian, French, Italian, Spanish, and English. She successfully received the CCT certification from the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education in June 2013. She taught Stanford’s Compassion Cultivation Training to students in and around Stanford in the Fall of 2013.