The Movie Club

Somehow, There's Always a Man Responsible for Anything Sofia Coppola Has Achieved.
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 4 2011 4:06 PM

The Movie Club

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Still from Somewhere. Click image to expand.
Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning in Somewhere

Hello, everyone—

Oh, Dana! I'm not sure it's in my power to make you love anything, not even a picture I love as fiercely as I do Somewhere. First off, though, it angers me that in defending a picture as simultaneously delicate and sturdy as Somewhere that anyone should use the old bullying technique of "you just don't get it because you're too conventional." Of course, bullies are everywhere—but Coppola doesn't need them.

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Though I'm mortified that you've run into Coppola bullies, Dana (and pretty dumb ones at that), I more often see it from the other side. I'm surprised at how often I have to defend Coppola against charges of being elitist, a talentless benefactor of nepotism, or just plain boring. The last charge is the one I can at least comprehend: If her movies don't reach you, they don't reach you. Lord knows I've been in plenty of conversations where I sit poker-faced as a colleague or friend rhapsodizes about the understated genius of Kiarostami or Kieslowski or any number of obviously gifted filmmakers whom I simply find deadly dull. (Sometimes I'm sure they feel the same about some of my favorites, like Hou Hsiao-hsien or Apichatpong Weerasethakul.) It boils down to this: There are a million and one shades and styles of understatement. Of course you like films where nothing happens. You just may not like the nothing that happens to be happening in Somewhere.

Of course, I would say that that "nothing" is actually a very big something, but I'll concede that it's fine-grained. Coppola has the lightest touch of any American filmmaker working, but she also has very distinct fingerprints. Her sense of humor is oblique, when it's not downright odd. There's that sequence in Somewhere where Stephen Dorff's lost, disaffected movie star has been slathered with a chilly-looking mashed-potato substance as a prelude for some age-makeup that's being designed for him. And Coppola and her D.P., Harris Savides, train the camera on that droopy white face (we hear Dorff's noisy breathing on the soundtrack) for an inordinately long time, moving in verrrrry slowly. I don't know that there's an earth-shattering statement there demanding to be "gotten." It's like a knock-knock joke reinvented as a koan. (Actually, knock-knock jokes have a lot in common with koans, but let's save that discussion for another day.)

In general, I'd say the gathering of small moments in Somewhere either hits you or it doesn't. For instance, the way Elle Fanning, as Dorff's preternaturally self-contained daughter, calls room service to order the ingredients to make macaroni and cheese or eggs benedict, as opposed to just asking for the finished product. Later, after she's gone, Dorff decides to make dinner for himself, obviously a novelty for him: We see him dumping out a giant's portion of spaghetti in the colander because he clearly doesn't know how much to cook. There's a beautiful, subtle parallel there, which is the sort of thing Coppola is great at. She gives her actors the canvas to build their characters layer by layer, but each layer is like a wash of watercolor—the building of intensity is gradual.

I have loved every one of Coppola's films, for different reasons—even Marie Antoinette, which, incidentally, isn't "revisionist" in terms of how it views the title character. It actually follows Antonia Fraser's scholarship (which Coppola used as the basis for the film) quite closely. But I can't tell you how many times when I mention Coppola's name in casual or even critic-type conversations there's someone there to drain credit away from her. And usually they're guys. One male critic assured me that Francis Ford Coppola cut his daughter's early movies. Maybe it's true, but if so, how come they make a lot more sense than Tetro does? (Or at least they're movies I'd much rather watch.) When Sofia won the top prize in Venice, the wagging tongues immediately chalked up her achievement to the fact that her ex-boyfriend, Quentin Tarantino, was the chairman of the jury. Lost in Translation was a good movie—but only because Bill Murray was great in it. Somehow, there's always a man responsible for anything Coppola has achieved.

Oy, I'm so sick of it. Matt, in a Salon letters thread attached to the Somewhere review written by my former colleague (and pal!) Andrew O'Hehir, you noted that while you had mixed feelings about the movie, you found it curious "that these 'nepotism' and 'rich girl' complaints pop up every single time Sofia Coppola makes a new movie," while no one makes the same charge about films by Jason Reitman or Duncan Jones (David Bowie's son, who made Moon.) To add another name to the pile—though his dad wasn't a filmmaker—what about that slacker, Jean Renoir? Then there's the recurring charge that Sofia Coppola is out of touch with reality. She only cares about rich people, and who can relate to them? Yeah, wow, I'm so sick of those whiners in The Leopard—and that Visconti, what a numbnuts.

I could talk about Sofia Coppola and Somewhere all day. It's funny: Sofia Coppola makes these beautifully constructed, quiet, subtle movies. A lot of people think of them as "girly" movies. But when I get talking about her, and them, my testosterone level gets cranked up higher than it does when I'm writing about Quentin Tarantino or Sam Peckinpah or Sam Fuller—any of the toughest tough-guy filmmakers you can think of.

So off I go—not with a meow but a roar.

Yours,
Stephanie

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Stephanie Zacharek is chief film critic at the Village Voice.

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